Oh, crikey, but Big Little Lies is nasty (Mondays, 9pm; made by HBO, shown in Britain on Sky Atlantic). It’s so mean and spiky and throbbing with jealousy and spite, I can hardly believe it was written by David E Kelley, the man responsible for, among other tooth-rotting televisual crimes, Ally McBeal. Its subjects are female rivalry, competitive parenting, toxic marriage, bitter divorce and money, money, money.
The rich, the show reminds us in almost every scene, may not be particularly happy: how the beautiful Technicolor Californian coastline mocks them as they stand on the wraparound terraces of their glorious homes. But hey, at least they’re the object of envy. Without its chilly blast, they would barely feel themselves to be alive.
Its tone is, I think, intended to be satirical. “She didn’t fit in, kinda like a dirty old Prius parked outside Barneys,” says one woman of Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), an impoverished newcomer to Monterey, where the series is set. But perhaps the producers weren’t expecting the victory of a certain Republican candidate for the presidency. What might once have seemed wildly exaggerated now appears to be almost understated. Families? Oh, they’re just miniature corporations of a kind. Friends? Status symbols. As for women, the true stars of Big Little Lies – they must be thin, beautiful and eternally watchful, in possession of a self-interest that is fierce and immeasurable. I bet Ivanka Trump is glued to it, down in the White House screening room.
Imagine, if you can, a Desperate Housewives/Midsomer Murders smoothie. The action turns around the parents of children at a primary school and is told in flashback after a murder at one of the school’s fundraisers. (So far, we know the identity of neither the victim nor the person who committed the crime, though we have seen snatched police interviews in which various moms and pops dish confidingly, like correspondents from Access Hollywood.) The school’s alpha-mom-in-chief is Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon, reprising her role in Alexander Payne’s 1999 movie, Election), a homemaker who dabbles in community theatre. Her BF is Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), another stay-at-home type, who has adorable twins by a younger man called Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). Perry, by the way, is always touching Celeste up – he nuzzles and sniffs her as if she were a truffle – even though she gives off the waxiest vibe this side of Madame Tussauds. Celeste and Madeline loathe another parent, Renata Klein (Laura Dern), mainly because she has the temerity to work (“I joined the board of PayPal!”). But they’re currently pretending to love Jane, whose son – attaboy! – appears to have attempted to strangle Renata’s little darling on the very first day of term.
Mystery abounds. Why is Celeste afraid of Perry? (Or perhaps I’ve misread this, and she’s just fed up with having cystitis.) Why does Jane keep having flashbacks to a crummy old bathroom? (A hangover she just can’t forget?) Why, above all, does Madeline wear six-inch heels and a prom dress on the school run? This, in physical terms, is not our world. It’s fairyland. Everyone’s age and face are so wildly off – these mostly middle-aged women with no wrinkles, small children and toy boys! – that they mistake the twentysomething Jane for a nanny at first. You’ve never seen child actors so beautiful, nor kitchens so vast, not on British television, at any rate. But once your vision has adjusted, it is, I must admit, almost fun.
For more bitchy glossiness you could try Clique from BBC3 (Sundays, online from 10am), a drama by Jess Brittain about a bunch of women students at Edinburgh University who fall under the spell of a female professor who runs a spooky business called the Solasta Initiative. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. Having seen some wag describe it as Donna Tartt’s Secret History-meets-Skins, I wanted to love it. In truth, it’s as if Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In had performed a hostile takeover of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Its writer has also forgotten that there’s nothing more boring than having your characters stare for moments at a time at the screen of their mobile phone. I loathe it.
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain