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Screen Test

HBO's Big Little Lies tears into politics of marriage, competitive parenting and domestic abuse

Marriage and domesticity take centre stage in whodunit Big Little Lies and romantic comedy Santa Clarita Diet

Big Little Liesis framed as a murder mystery: The intricate web of relationships connecting five women with children at the same school culminates in a death at a wealthy seaside town.

Yet, the whodunit is almost a throwaway - it is introduced in the pilot and referred to in flashbacks, but you don't find out who the victim or culprit is until the seventh and final episode.

Instead, the meat of this limited series is the fine-grained politics of marriage, competitive parenting and domestic abuse - themes hidden inside the sugar pill of a gossipy, compulsively watchable drama headlined by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, with Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013) directing and David E. Kelley (TV's Ally McBeal, 1997-2002) writing the screenplay.

Witherspoon is Madeline, a Type A stay-at-home-mother whose child is the queen bee of the elementary school social scene. She is friends with Celeste (Kidman), who gave up a high- flying law career to live a seemingly idyllic life with her twin boys and dashing husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard).

Zoe Kravitz (above) plays the young and hip Bonnie in Big Little Lies, while Timothy Olyphant is the husband of a flesh-eating woman (Drew Barrymore) in Santa Clarita Diet.
Zoe Kravitz (above) plays the young and hip Bonnie in Big Little Lies, while Timothy Olyphant is the husband of a flesh-eating woman (Drew Barrymore) in Santa Clarita Diet. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Madeline resents the working mums at the school - specifically Renata (Laura Dern), a venture capitalist who lords her career status over the rest. Madeline is also keeping a beady eye on Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) - her ex-husband's young, hip second wife and a rival for their daughters' affections.

The spark that sets off the powder keg is the arrival of a new mum, Jane (Shailene Woodley). Jane's son is accused of bullying Renata's daughter, prompting Madeline - always spoiling for a fight - to take Jane's side. This splits the school's parents into two camps as the pair wage a war, their weapons of choice being things such as invitations to children's parties.

The setting is an affluent community, but this isn't just a show about rich-white-people problems - at least, no more than what you typically see in scripted television.

Women and men from all walks of life will recognise these characters, from the self- flagellation practised by working and stay-at-home mums to the perfectionists who project their issues onto their children, or the spouses who feel threatened by the ex and vice versa. And some may wonder, as Madeline's husband does, if "the essence of a marriage is the ability to pretend".

The series has an astute eye for social interactions at close quarters, vividly capturing the shame and self-delusion of Kidman's Celeste, who, it emerges, is an abused wife. The character is a revelation - a compassionate yet credible exploration of how even smart, strong women can stay in such relationships.

Apart from the rather two- dimensional Bonnie, each of the core characters is inflected with similar subtleties and contradictions - Madeline is bossy and combative, but she is also kind.

Female characters that live and breathe this way remain the exception rather than the rule and this alone makes the series worth a look.

Zoe Kravitz plays the young and hip Bonnie in Big Little Lies, while Timothy Olyphant is the husband of a flesh-eating woman (Drew Barrymore, both above) in Santa Clarita Diet.
Zoe Kravitz plays the young and hip Bonnie in Big Little Lies, while Timothy Olyphant is the husband of a flesh-eating woman (Drew Barrymore, both above) in Santa Clarita Diet. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Santa Clarita Diet, too, wants to be a commentary on marriage and domesticity, only the woman here is a suburban mum and realtor, Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore), who suddenly becomes undead.

The idea of a sympathetic zombie as a romantic-comedy protagonist is not new - the film Warm Bodies and series iZombie got there first.

But this one veers a shade darker because Sheila craves fresh, or at the very least, flash-frozen human flesh. This turns her into a murderer and makes her husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant), daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) and their neighbour Eric (Skyler Gisondo) complicit.

Other than the odd patch of B-grade sitcom banter between the Hammonds and their neighbours and colleagues, the show is reliably funny.

Sheila looks and acts normal for the most part, which makes her projectile-vomiting absurd quantities of bile or chomping off a man's fingers laugh-out-loud startling. Only the preternaturally adorable Barrymore could pull this off and still look cute.

  • VIEW IT / BIG LITTLE LIES

  • HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Mondays, 10am and 9pm. Also available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602) and StarHub Go

    4/5 stars

    SANTA CLARITA DIET

    Netflix

    3/5 stars

There are some first-rate one-liners - the Hammonds realise they cannot go on the run because "we have too much equity in our house", but at the same time, Sheila is "so glad this isn't one of those diseases that dry out your skin".

The comedy has a bit of an edge, too. Sheila is now completely driven by her id - she gives in to all her impulses, whether it is to eat someone's face or buy a flashy new car and a comment by Eric that human beings may be "the real zombies destroying the earth" suggests the writers are reaching for some sort of critique on the avarice of the human race.

It does feel like a reach, though, as do the half-hearted attempts to convey quiet discontent in the Hammonds' marriage. There are hints of their boring lives pre-zombification and Joel realises that he went from being a popular high-school jock to someone who sells real estate with his wife.

Yet, this might also make Santa Clarita Diet the perfect popcorny antidote to the portentous The Walking Dead, which has been foot-dragging in circles for several seasons. You are better off watching this, especially if the zombie apocalypse is nigh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Dysfunctional spouses'. Print Edition | Subscribe