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'Big Little Lies' lands on a Sunday for the ages and in a changed medium

Three separate mysteries clobber you right at the beginning of HBO's terrific "Big Little Lies" (9 p.m. Sunday).

The first two are about a murder you are told about right away even though you're not told either the victim or the killer. I've now seen the first four episodes of the mini-series and at the end of those episodes you still don't know.

The third mystery is this: Did the 6-year old son of the character played by Shailene Woodley choke the little daughter of the character played by Laura Dern?

Now, try to imagine, which of those mysteries is of burning importance in those first four episodes. Right you are, if you said the choking that supposedly took place at First Grade Orientation Day in the kids' wealthy new school in Monterey, Calif.

"Big Little Lies" is great television in several ways. But it also leads to a much more personal question for anyone who cares about watching the great TV that is on offer all over: Will you be able to watch everything great or even highly promising on Sunday this weekend?

Answer: Not even close. Even two DVRs and On Demand won't help you. Showtime is at least offering you a little bit of help by offering the opening episode of the second season of its lacerating and brilliant Wall Street fantasy "Billions" by showing it twice in a row beginning at 10 p.m.

Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in Showtime's "Billions." (Jeff Neumann- Showtime)

But it still can't completely clear up the bumper car pileup of first rate Sunday evening television:

--NBC is taking up the entire evening (beginning at 8 p.m.) with the Paley Center's Salute to NBC's 90th Anniversary. A must for the most devoted TV fans.

--"Big Little Lies" on HBO.

--The Good Fight" at 8 p.m. on CBS, in which Christine Baranski, as Diane Lockhart again, takes over the legal drama that used to be known as "The Good Wife" and also begins, after this weekend, CBS' much-ballyhooed dip into All-Access television on the web.

-- The NBA All-Star game will begin at 8:20 p.m. to show you the league's favorite players showing off by shooting almost at will and playing virtually no defense whatsoever.

We won't even tell you about the garbageous stuff offered on the Lifetime network at 8 p.m. (a biopic about, yes, Britney Spears) and new episodes of longtime Sunday faves "The Walking Dead" on AMC (9 p.m.) and Showtime's addictive "Homeland" at 9 p.m. before "Billions" returns.

Television is not the same medium anymore. But then most things aren't in the digital age.



Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in “The Good Fight.” (Jeff Neira, CBS)

Television has become so good and so complex that the quality of what's on it would be unrecognizable to anyone who came directly to it from watching the TV of 1969 (when I first started writing about the medium).

HBO's "The Young Pope," which just concluded its first season (and has promised another) was an astonishment unlike anything that came before it on TV or in movies. Paolo Sorrentino's fantasy about the pontiff was about a megalomaniacal, handsome, slightly sinister but completely charismatic conservative who manifested qualities diametrically opposite those so captivating in Francis, the man who actually is the pope. It was a magnificently photographed portrait, three-quarters of the time, of gigantic institutional wealth and physical beauty through which the imaginary pope connived and conspired to bring himself and the world to God.

It was hallucinatory and amazing at almost every step.

The world, as shown to us in "Big Little Lies" is also, in its own way, a world of immense and obscene wealth and physical splendor. These inhabitants of Monterrey live with jaw-dropping gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean in houses that bespeak almost literally unimaginable privilege.

What the whole show is about is what happens when a woman of limited and ordinary means -- a bookkeeper played by Woodley -- moves into town with her first-grade son and becomes friends with an intense divorced and remarried mother played by Reese Witherspoon.

Their friend -- a retired lawyer played by Nicole Kidman -- is also a mother of two but, in her case, the wife of a bullying, possessive, violent abuser with whom she has violent sex after every instance of abuse. We're way outside the rules of cliche here. He's played by Alexander Skarsgard and he is someone you'd dearly like to drown in the Pacific, no matter how playful and delightful a father he is to his boys and how satisfying a lover he is to his troubled wife.

Among the many brilliant subtexts of "Big Little Lies" is what happens in a world that is virtually ruled by children's' existence -- or at least ruled by overwrought concern for their welfare. People battle over whether or not "Avenue Q" -- with puppet fornication -- is a suitable piece of community theater. And a mystery over a 6-year old's claim of being choked splits a community into two.

The seven-episode mini-series is an adaptation of a novel originally set in Australia by Liane Moriarty and re-located to Monterrey.

The cast is as extraordinary as you expect, a sorority of some of the best we've got doing some of their best work.

And that is because two amazing things happened behind the camera: 1) after spending most of the 21st century's first years lost in mediocrity, late-20th-century TV prodigy David E. Kelley is back with some of the best work of his writing life in the entire script of "Big Little Lies" and 2) director Jean-Marc Vallee directed every episode in a writer/director collaboration which was made in heaven.

It isn't often in movies or TV or anywhere else that you find a writer and director collaborating as ideally as Kelley and Vallee do in the episodes of "Big Little Lies." Up to now, Vallee's best-known hand-held camera style distinguished "Dallas Buyers Club." What the two of them do together in "Big Little Lies" is give the mini-series a unified style in which an almost absurd amount of conspicuous privilege is revealed to an equal amount of catastrophic stupidity, gossip and social climbing.

Kelley's most delicious device is an old-fashioned chorus of local residents who comment on the action thus far in unfailingly insensitive ways which almost invariably get everything wrong. In the world of "Big Little Lies," the "innocent bystanders" all think they've got an insight into the truth and they're all clueless. They are the least innocent people we're looking at.

It isn't exactly "counter-programming" to the portrait of obscene wealth and lack of principle that "Billions" has become so good at but, altogether, "Big Little Lies" and "Billions" on Sundays are giving us something that movies, for instance, just aren't these days.

Add it to 'The Young Pope" and, as always, we are seeing how radically different a thing TV has become in America. Ratings are an irrelevance. What matters is how unfathomably good so much of it has become.

It desperately needs to be written about in a different way, a way that equals its quality or at least makes an effort to come close.

We need a combination of TV Guide and the New Yorker and New York Magazine and the New York Times devoted exclusively to television.

In both variety and quality, the medium has become amazing in a way that other media need to figure out how to follow.

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