TV review: Big Little Lies, Sky Atlantic (4 stars)

TV review: Big Little Lies, Sky Atlantic

A superior character-driven murder mystery with Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern

David E Kelley may have forged his TV reputation with a series of hit legal dramas and comedies, but for his biggest success in a long while, he's gone back to basics. His 1992 debut solo creation, Picket Fences, revolved around a quirky fictional Wisconsin town and its equally offbeat inhabitants; while its success may not have matched that of his later work (Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), Picket Fences offers a gateway into the world of Big Little Lies. But here, he's replaced quirks with as fully-rounded a set of made-up TV humans as you're likely to encounter all year.

Proceedings open with police investigating a recently committed murder, but as viewers, we're unaware of the identities of both killer and victim. There are frequent sequences of other townsfolk delivering salacious snippets about the key characters to police while we follow events in the lead-up to this crime. A similar technique gave the first series of True Detective a genuine vigour, and here it works beautifully too, a real feat when you consider the many more personalities that are in play.

Of course, Kelley is unable to entirely ditch the legal content, so Nicole Kidman plays Celeste Wright, who attempts to resurrect her career against the wishes of her controlling husband (Alexander Skarsgård). Among the other high-flyers are Laura Dern as Renata Klein, a job-driven mom on the board of internationally renowned companies, while Reese Witherspoon's Madeline Martha Mackenzie deflects from the problems within her own domestic situation (her teenage daughter is being drawn closer to her father who is now on his second marriage) to help produce a controversial local staging of Avenue Q. And fresh in town is Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) escaping the dark shadow of a violent attack on her.

The glue that sticks all these characters together is their children, all first graders at a public school in Monterey, whose teacher launches a public show trial in front of parents and their kids to ascertain which child caused the bruises on one girl's neck. With a cast to die for (all of the above talents are supplemented by the likes of Adam Scott, Zoë Kravitz and Jeffrey Nordling), the murder-mystery might be the motor that keeps events ticking over, but there are plenty other pleasures to be had over and above its 'whodunnit and to who' intrigue.

Big Little Lies starts on Sky Atlantic, Mon 13 Mar, 9pm

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