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‘Big Little Lies’ review: Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, more create fabulous cast

Reese Witherspoon stars in this HBO miniseries series created by David E. Kelley, based on the book of the same name by Liane Moriarty.  (Credit: HBO)

THE SERIES “Big Little Lies”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

GRADE A-

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Single mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a newcomer to the tony town of Monterey, California, and meets one of the local busybodies, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) before dropping off her kid for the first day of first grade. Mother of three Madeline is a pistol: Abrasive, tough-talking and in everyone’s face. She’s married to submissive, stay-at-home dad Ed (Adam Scott), who is resentful of her first husband, Nathan (James Tupper), now married to Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz).

Personal style aside, Madeline still has a few friends, notably Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who’s married to the possibly psychotic Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), but she needs more. Maybe that’s why she embraces Jane who unintentionally draws Madeline into a running brawl with Type A personality Renata (Laura Dern). The contretemps was sparked by a misunderstanding (perhaps) between children.

Meanwhile, all that has happened in the past. When the series begins in present time, a murder — or possibly many — has taken place at a fundraiser, and (a la “True Detective”) a cop is trying to unravel what happened. There are many witnesses.

This seven-episode murder-mystery-satire is based on the 2014 bestseller by Liane Moriarty and written by Emmy winner David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice”).

MY SAY Can a city sue for slander? If so, then even the sea lions and humpback whales out in Monterey Bay may have a case against “Big Little Lies.” Rarely has a famous American community been so lavishly, sumptuously filmed, yet so savagely disemboweled at the same time. Through the lens of director Jean-Marc Vallée, this city of 27,000, about 120 miles south of San Francisco, has been turned into an Arcadian paradise — or a heightened version of one. The greens are emerald, the blues cerulean. The restless ocean is rarely out of sight, hardly out of earshot either. Meanwhile, the bodies — the still-living human ones — are perfect. You begin to entertain the illusion that the local constabulary will be alerted to any persons unattractive or — heaven forbid — porcine.

Naturally, “Big Little Lies” is really preoccupied with what lies beneath. No spoilers, but blood, broken bones and multiple victims would appear to be on the other side of this paradise.

Sendups of the California dreamscape and its ugly underbelly are about as old as California, and pretty much a preoccupation of the film and TV industry since at least “Sunset Boulevard.” What most of those didn’t have, however, is a cast quite like this. Dern, Kravitz, Woodley, Kidman and especially Witherspoon are phenomenal, and usually are, but they also fit as effortlessly into the frame as the immaculate homes and wide, open beaches. Their job is to draw you into this pleasure dome, and along with the distant crashing waves, lull you into a not-unpleasing trance. That will be shattered — you have been forewarned — so enjoy the ride while you can.

“Big Little Lies” isn’t so much a whodunit as a who-didn’t-do-it. The line of potential suspects is endless, potential victims, too. It’s a seven-episode version of “Clue” that forces viewers to ask (so to speak) whether Col. Mustard used the dagger or revolver on Mrs. Peacock.

Kelley wrote this miniseries and, for the most part, it’s Kelley at his scabrous best. Some lines don’t merely cut. They gash. While much of “Big Little Lies” is deadly serious, much is laugh-out-loud funny. Members of a grand jury or witnesses (it’s unclear which) fill out the fast-forward storyline, and they intermittently break in to comment on one of the characters as they stumble their way to a tragedy only they know about. They’re like the Greek chorus in some play by Aristophanes — catty, waspish, droll and occassionally vicious. Eve Harrington would admire this bunch.

BOTTOM LINE Yes, it can be mean, and yes, superficial, and yes, a little draggy (almost a whole episode about a kids’ party, really?). But the cast is fabulous, and the script by Kelley sparkles. A winner.

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