Big Little Lies - Best ever TV Box Sets: The Monterey mystery with the ultimate Hollywood cast

With its brilliant storytelling, gorgeous locations and an enviable cast, you need to move Californian drama Big Little Lies to the top of your NOW TV binge-watching pile.

By Pippa Shawley Published: 2 March 2020 - 1.40pm
HBO

Watch Big Little Lies on Sky Atlantic with NOW TV

Attracting the kind of talent normally reserved for blockbuster films, drama Big Little Lies made a huge splash when it debuted in 2017.

Based in an upmarket seaside town in California, the series, based on a best-selling book of the same name, told the story of a group of wealthy mothers, each with a secret to hide. 

Thanks to its nuanced storytelling, outstanding cast and dreamy locations, the series was both a critical and ratings success. 

Here’s why you should drop everything to watch the series. 

The stellar casting

Nicole Kidman. Reese Witherspoon. Laura Dern. Shailene Woodley. Zoe Kravitz. The cast of Big Little Lies is arguably the most impressive in Hollywood, and that’s before you start counting the supporting actors such as Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott and Iain Armitage.  

And just when it seemed like that line up couldn’t be improved, it was announced that Meryl Streep would be joining the cast for season 2.

“It was like meeting the Queen of England,” James Tupper, who plays Nathan Carlson, told Variety, “You’re like, ‘Your majesty.’” 

Liane Moriarty, who wrote the novel and developed the storyline for the series, had a sneaky plan to persuade Streep to join the cast. She named the character Mary Louise, which is Meryl Streep’s real name, but in the end, it didn’t take much coaxing to get her to sign up. She didn’t even read the script before saying yes. “It was the greatest thing on television,” she said in a panel discussion about the show. “There isn’t a woman in this room who wouldn’t sign up.”

Getting Woodley to join the original cast was harder. She’d almost quit acting before Big Little Lies and asked her agents to stop sending her scripts. In the end, a call from Laura Dern, who she’d starred alongside in The Fault in Our Stars and who was already signed up to play Renata Klein in the show, was the push she needed to say 'yes'. 

Meryl Streep HBO

That the show had so many outstanding female characters is a rarity even for Hollywood veterans like Reese Witherspoon, who made her acting debut in 1991’s The Man in the Moon.

“I’ve never gotten to work with actresses of this calibre, because we’re usually cordoned off and we’re the only women in movies,” she told Vogue. “Usually you’re with a group of men and you’re the only girl.”

Witherspoon and Kidman, who produced the show in addition to starring in it, were instrumental in getting the project off the ground. Kidman flew to Australia to persuade the book’s author Liane Moriarty to sell them the rights to the screen adaptation. She agreed, on the condition that Kidman play Celeste.

While the gripping storyline was an obvious draw for the pair, the strong female characters also appealed as they were the kind of parts the actors were rarely being offered.

“I think now, particularly for women, we're in a position where if it's not happening, you've got to make it happen for you,” Kidman said in an interview with W magazine.

“You've got to make opportunities for yourself and your friends. And that's pretty much what Big Little Lies was. It was building opportunities for ourselves and our friends, and it just happened to become what it became, but that was because there was an enormous amount of passion behind it as well and optimism, actually.” 

The scenery is stunning

Set in the beautiful Monterey area of central California, the show’s backdrop is almost as arresting as its storyline.

From Jane’s jogs on the beach to Madeline’s favourite seaside coffee shop, scenic Monterey adds to the atmosphere of the show, which follows a group of wealthy women going about their daily lives, while also harbouring a variety of secrets.

According to the Radio Times, Google searches for Monterey trebled when the second series premiered in the UK in 2019, while searches for Monterey hotels increased by 50 per cent on the US opening night.

From the beautiful Lovers Point Park and Beach to the seafood markets and lively shops of Old Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s a fantastic destination for tourists. 

The world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, which features heavily in the second series of Big Little Lies, has a whole page on its website dedicated to the show, and you can even book a Romance Tour to visit the aquarium out of hours as Jane does in series 2.

Shailene Woodley and Douglas Smith HBO

Not all the locals are thrilled, however, even though tourism in the area contributed almost $3 billion to the economy in 2018, up 5.8 per cent on the previous year

The iconic Bixby Bridge, which features in the show’s opening credits and is one of the world’s highest single-span bridges at 714 feet long and 260 feet high, has become a must-visit location for visitors hoping for the perfect Instagram snap.

However, its popularity has caused disruption for locals, including a three-mile traffic jam on Independence Day weekend 2019, apparently caused by tourists pulling over for pictures. A few days later, a banner reading ‘Overtourism is killing Big Sur’ was hung over the side of the bridge.

Big Little Lies isn’t the first big production to film in the area. Around 200 films and TV shows have been made in Monterey County, including Basic Instinct, Lassie Come Home and The Muppet Movie.

It depicts domestic abuse in a realistic way

Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård HBO

Nicole Kidman has been widely praised for her performance as Celeste, a victim of domestic abuse.

Emotionally, physically and mentally abused by husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), Celeste demonstrates in a way that has rarely, if ever, been seen on screen before, that abuse can affect anyone, regardless of how educated, wealthy or attractive they are.

We see Perry physically attack Celeste in several scenes throughout the series, but it’s over a course of therapy sessions, which Vulture described as ‘so realistic, they’re draining’, that the full extent of his abuse becomes clear.

Some of the scenes were so visceral that they left Kidman both physically and emotionally bruised. "I felt very exposed and vulnerable and deeply humiliated at times," she told W magazine.

"But at times I would have flashes of images of women that have gone through this and I'm like, 'This is authentic, this is the truth and this is what I have to do.'" 

Kidman received Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her work on the series. In her Golden Globes speech, Kidman said: “This character that I played represents something that is the centre of our conversation right now: abuse,” referencing both Big Little Lies and the Me Too movement.

“I do believe, and I hope, we can elicit change through the stories we tell and the way we tell them. Let's keep the conversation alive.”

The show has an incredible soundtrack

Jean-Marc Vallée, who served as director on season 1 and an executive producer on the following season, was keen to use existing songs for the show, instead of hiring a composer. Working with music supervisor Susan Jacobs, he developed a playlist of songs by artists ranging from Elvis Presley and Neil Young to Sufjan Stevens and Leon Bridges. Swerving a cinematic score, the familiar soundtrack is played through headphones and car radios, and the protagonists can often be heard sing along to it.

As well as helping to build the story, the soundtrack is a playlist of smash hits. Michael Kiwanuka’s Cold Little Heart, played over the opening credits, sets the tone for what follows, while The Temptations’ Papa Was a Rolling Stone is used both in a celebratory dance between Jane and her son Ziggy, and in her traumatic flashbacks.

The popularity of the show’s music has had a positive impact on those featured in the playlist too. According to Variety, Kiwanuka’s track had been streamed half a million times before the show launched in February 2017, since when it had been streamed more than 42 million times. The singer even didn’t realise his song was being used as the show’s title track until his US tour dates sold out immediately after Big Little Lies debuted. 

What the critics said

Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley HBO

Season 1 of the show was rated 95 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, which called it “bitingly funny and highly addictive, Big Little Lies is a twisty, thrilling, enlightening ride led by a first-rate cast.”

“Big Little Lies is a series built to be as entertaining as it is enlightening, and they’ve pulled off both feats with great zeal,” agreed IndieWire’s Ben Travers.

Cosmopolitan’s Emma Baty said: “The first season of Big Little Lies was maybe the best thing to happen to television in the past five years. Take some of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, put them in a beautiful place with all the lead roles, have them recreate a best-selling book, and throw a major, major twist at the end. It was a recipe for pop-culture success, and it was So. Damn. Good.”

“I love the characters, who are messy, flawed, damaged, and still frequently sympathetic,” wrote The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert of season 2. 

“Only [Meryl] Streep could make eating pizza seem sinister,” added the Telegraph’s Serena Davies.

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