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HBO's 'Big Little Lies' should be big at award time

I cannot tell a lie, especially before Presidents' Day Weekend.

I really enjoyed watching the fictitious rich people in Monterey, Calif., prove that money doesn't buy happiness in the HBO limited series "Big Little Lies" that premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on the pay-channel.

I am ashamed of myself. Well, almost.

The series about little lies that become big issues written by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (who directed Reese Witherspoon in "Wild") is beautifully shot, has an excellent musical score, a decent homicide mystery and an A list cast to die for.

Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgard, James Tupper and Adam Scott star in the series based on a 2014 best-selling Australian novel by Liam Moriarty.

If it is HBO's attempt to get back on the award-winning trail, mission accomplished. Almost every scene is like a class from the Actor's Studio as Witherspoon, Kidman, Dern and Woodley navigate complicated marital, parental and friendship waters.

The men in the cast have mostly secondary roles, either as supportive, abusive, controlling or frustrated spouses.

Make no mistake. This is a showcase for actresses. Many of the scenes involving Kidman as Celeste Wright, a wife abused by her insecure husband (Skarsgard's character), are painful to watch.

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Witherspoon's Madeline MacKenzie is the most fun to watch, primarily because she plays a married busybody who supports her friends, ridicules her enemies and battles her ex-husband (Tupper) and his younger wife Bonnie (Kravitz) over how to raise a difficult teenage daughter.

Woodley plays the most likable character, Jane Chapman, who isn't rich and moved to Monterrey for a better life with her young son Ziggy (an adorable Iain Armitage). Unfortunately, Ziggy is quickly accused of bullying the daughter of Dern's Type A character, Renata Klein.

Whether Ziggy did anything or is falsely accused is one mystery. Another mystery that isn't revealed in the first six of the series' seven episodes is who was killed and why (If you read the book, the suspense will be spoiled).

Kelly's script uses a framing device in which Monterrey prosecutors and residents periodically talk about a case that viewers most likely won't understand until the seventh and final episode after getting get no clues about who is dead.

There is no mystery why the actresses, most of whom usually work in movies, wanted to be involved in a story that deals with domestic abuse, rape, infidelity, jealousy, insecurity, friendship and the importance that some people place on how they appear to people they don't know.

In a recent press conference with the nation's television critics in Pasadena, Calif., Witherspoon said she saw herself in different stages of motherhood while reading the novel. She said she was a mother like Woodley's character at age 22 and like her own character at 40.

"I’ve been divorced, I’ve been remarried," added Witherspoon. "There was just so many aspects of it that were so relatable to the lives of women, and the really amazing part was actually digging deep into the lives of women. It wasn’t about them being good or bad. It’s just that they showed every spectrum, every color of women’s lives. And I thought that was a really unique opportunity to have so many incredible parts for women in one piece of material."

Kidman, who said she and Witherspoon are good friends (they are among several executive producers on the series), added she related to all the female characters in the book.

"There’s just such an array of emotions in this piece, and that’s what we were excited to show," said Kidman. "We were excited to show the lives of these women in a very authentic way, and, yet, entertaining."

Witherspoon said she seeks characters she's never seen on film before and "Big Little Lies" filled the bill.

"I feel like it was such a unique opportunity to have women of every age, every color talking about motherhood," said Witherspoon. "And that is sort of a common denominator. Motherhood is the great equalizer. Parenthood is a great equalizer, and socioeconomically, it sort of brings these five disparate women together in a way that they clash, but they also understand and discover each other you know, as similar spirits by the end of the series. And I think that’s what I’m always looking for, something new, and something challenging."

Kelley, who is known for writing strong female characters in "L.A. Law," "Ally McBeal" and "Picket Fences," also had a challenge.

"What was challenging was probably living up to the book, living up to the complications of some of those characters, and also having to make cuts because there are nuggets in the book that if we had more time, we could have explored more crevices," said Kelley. "But it was a pretty smooth process and a fun process overall, and I give credit to Liane. She wrote a terrific piece."

Witherspoon was pleased that Kelley kept the focus on parenthood.

"I think that’s what the show deals with a lot, the artificial sort of presentation of parenthood, versus real parenthood," said Witherspoon. "All of us have a great journey to become deeper, better parents by the end of it as well."

Kidman said the series deals with camaraderie as well as disagreements between the female characters.

"As much as there is conflict between us, when you see the full seven hours, there’s pieces about women helping each other and supporting each other, which was very important to Reese and I," said Kidman.

Witherspoon's meddling character is in the middle of most of the disagreements, which made a critic ask if Madeline is self-aware.

"She is aware she is the most dynamic person in the room," said Witherspoon. "I think she’s hyper-aware of a lot of things, and deeply upset. I always when I started playing this character, I was like, 'I’m not sure I can play this character.' And David and Jean-Marc and Nicole were like, 'What are you talking about? You’re perfect for this character.' Really? I don’t know if I find that sort of offensive. Bossy know it all, busybody.

"But then she becomes aware through the process, and as you get further into the series, you start to realize the reason that she is so controlling and so high strung, and so tightly wound, is really because she’s concealing something very difficult for her to hold. And when she finally let’s it go in the end of this series, she can finally see her truth and become more of a little more mellow, I guess."

Witherspoon added there was one bonus working with her friend Kidman.

"Nicole and I were reflecting about this during the shooting," said Witherspoon. "For 25 years, I have been the only woman on set, so I had no other women to talk to. They call it like the Smurfette Syndrome where she’s got 100 Smurfs around, but she’s the only girl. And who gave birth to all these Smurfs anyway?

"We’re Smurfettes. But honestly, it’s so refreshing to get to spend time with women. And there would be times where I couldn’t break my character. I would call Nicole and go 'What do you think I should do with this scene? I can’t play this.'

"Or I would sit with Laura Dern in a car and go 'My character, I just can’t say those words. What would you say if you had to say this?' And honestly, we just like nurtured each other’s performance… I really feel more strongly than anything I’ve ever done that this is the greatest ensemble experience I’ve ever had."


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