Reese Witherspoon played Tracy Flick in Election 18 years ago, in a performance so towering it birthed an archetype and had the power to typecast Witherspoon forever—not in other movies but in our minds. In the years since Election, Witherspoon has appeared in and produced over 20 other films, assiduously avoiding playing anyone as distastefully Type-A (infamously the name of Witherspoon’s production company) as Flick, anyone as button-cute and implacably relentless, as simultaneously undeniable and detestable. And yet Tracy Flick hovers in the background of all Witherspoon’s choices, a superpower she refuses to deploy.
A certain steely competence is as much a part of Witherspoon as her defiant chin, but she has spent the years since Election exploring this quality indirectly. Flick is to Witherspoon as the North Pole is to a compass: always exerting an invisible pull even as Witherspoon navigates in every direction but toward it. In Legally Blonde, Witherspoon dressed up her competence in pink, softening her formidable intelligence with a feather boa of ditziness. She won an Oscar as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, going grounded, sensible, and nurturing with occasional bursts of charming sass. In Wild, she played a woman who had lost herself, the very fact of said woman being played by Reese Witherspoon a kind of promise of her future sanity. She has appeared in half-baked rom-coms and romances and buddy films (Sweet Home Alabama, Just Like Heaven, How Do You Know, This Means War, Water for Elephants, Hot Pursuit) but refrained from starring as Amy in David Fincher’s high-profile Gone Girl, a film that she produced, despite seeming to be the perfect choice to play a scheming, vengeful sociopath masquerading as an appealing everywoman.
All of Witherspoon’s non–Tracy Flick roles have been in conversation with Tracy Flick, murmuring something like, “No, no, no, not you again, not yet”—until now. In HBO’s Big Little Lies, an excellent seven-episode miniseries that gets away with being about the traumas of the obscenely wealthy by being just as rich in character development, Witherspoon has finally given in, donning her own personal Batman suit and playing gloriously to indomitable type. Witherspoon co-stars alongside Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley as Madeline Martha Mackenzie: a mother, community theater enthusiast, and moderately unbearable force of nature.
Madeline is seen by her neighbors as, basically, a stay-at-home Tracy Flick, a woman to be endured and feared, but the audience is invited to know her more intimately, not just her anxieties and flaws but her warmth, her loyalty, her humor, her charming too-muchness. Madeline is the kind of woman who says, only half-joking, that part of the reason she’s a stay-at-home mom is that she just enjoys pissing the working moms off, a bit of childishness copped to so knowingly that its endearing. Madeline’s overinvolved and overinvested, but she’s not selfish or brittle. Underneath her bluster, she’s kind of a square who can’t help but act like she’s larger than life. Witherspoon waited all this time for the chance to take her archetype and make her human.
Big Little Lies, based on the book by Liane Moriarty, is set in the impossibly wealthy beach town of Monterey, California, among a group of women whose children are all in first grade at the fantastic local public school. As the show begins, Woodley’s Jane Chapman has just moved to town with her son Ziggy, chasing down secrets from her dark past.* She meets Madeline on the first day of school as Madeline screams at her 16-year-old daughter about texting and driving, and then sprains her ankle, her queen bee 6-year-old sitting in the car. Jane—younger, poorer, and more low-key—is wary but swiftly and irrevocably taken under Madeline’s surprisingly generous wing anyway. Jane soon becomes friends with Madeline’s best friend Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman, also fantastic), a gorgeous mother of twins in what appears to be an idyllic and intensely passionate marriage to the younger Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) but that is much more twisted. Rounding out the relevant mothers is Laura Dern’s Renata Klein, a hotshot CEO who is endlessly needled by Madeline, and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the only underdeveloped character of the bunch, as the beatific, enlightened new yogi wife of Madeline’s ex-husband.
The show is framed by a murder. Someone—and through six of the seven episodes, even the victim’s identity is not revealed—has been killed at the swanky school fundraiser. The show cuts between scenes leading up to the event featuring the aforementioned women and to the present, where Monterey’s other residents, acting as the bitchy Greek chorus, sit in an interrogation room opining on those past events, to which they have been paying attention with the singlemindedness not of overinvested neighbors but a rapt TV audience.
The murder plot is a high-concept hook that the show almost could have done without. (Give the pacing of the first six episodes, it will almost certainly be wrapped up too quickly to be satisfying.) The real precipitating violence is more mundane: One of the first-graders is bullying Renata’s shy daughter Amabelle, who on the first day of school, fingers the sweet Ziggy for unclear reasons. Thanks largely to Madeline, the first-grade class is soon drawn into battle lines: decadent 6-year-old birthday parties, trips to see Frozen on ice, and the town production of the controversial Avenue Q all lead to an incredible ratcheting-up of tension between adults, 6-year-olds, and adults behaving worse than 6-year-olds.
This description may make Big Little Lies sound like an intentional satire of affluence and status parenting a la Desperate Housewives, or an unintentional parody of affluence and status parenting à la The Slap. Remarkably, given the current moment, Big Little Lies is not embarrassed to be about exactly what it is about: the travails of immensely privileged people. It does not camouflage itself as a convincing thriller or a pop distraction or an attempt at anthropology. The catty comments of the Monterey hoi polloi do give the series a gossipy gloss but as directed by Wild and Dallas Buyer’s Club’s Jean-Marc Vallee, Big Little Lies is an empathic drama, a remarkably astute and deep series of character and relationship studies. (The exception here is the radical underdevelopment of Kravitz’s Bonnie, also the only major character of color. Her relative opacity stands out like a sore thumb—if it’s not a red herring or a major clue.)
Witherspoon’s Madeline is the showiest part, though Dern nearly keeps up with her, chewing scenery as a corporate executive completely undone by her inability to protect, or even communicate with, her daughter. (Renata, like the townsfolk, comes closest to being a kind of suburban helicopter Gorgon.) But Kidman is just as good as Witherspoon, in a quieter register: Celeste and Perry’s relationship is so twisted and psychosexual that everything about it is at once straightforward and impossibly complicated, a knot one can see how to untie but not without drawing it tighter. Celeste’s dynamic with Perry, with her therapist, and with Madeline could all be series unto themselves. Ditto Madeline’s relationship with her husband Ed (Adam Scott), her ex-husband, to say nothing of Jane, Renata, and the director of the local community theater. There’s more psychological depth to Madeline, Jane, and Celeste’s relationship with their local barista than there is between the leads in most shows. It might have taken 18 years to find a part worth reviving her inner Flick for—but watching Big Little Lies, you can understand why Witherspoon waited so long.
*Correction, March 13: This post originally misidentified Jane’s son’s name. It is Ziggy. (Return.)