The school gates can be a sinister place, with competitive alpha mums swapping scurrilous gossip and scaring the awkward beta dads. This was the starting point for Big Little Lie (Sky Atlantic), the latest thoroughbred drama to come galloping out of the HBO stable: an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestseller about a mysterious death in a postcard-perfect Californian seaside community. Think Broadchurch meets Desperate Housewives.
This opening episode was cunningly structured, so we discovered that murder had taken place at a school fundraising night but weren’t told the victim. Not so much a whodunit as a dunit-to-who. We then flashed back to the first day of term to see how it all began with one little darling accusing a classmate of trying to choke her.
The series has a head-turningly heavyweight cast, led by Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. The rest of the ensemble wasn’t too shabby either, including Alexander Skarsgård, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley. Indeed, the latter stole the first episode from under her more famous co-stars’ cute button noses, charismatically playing Jane Chapman, a young single mother with a secret past and a gun under her pillow.
However, this Stepford-esque suburban noir felt a tad derivative. The “ripples spreading out from act of violence against a child” plot was reminiscent of The Slap and the absurdly affluent setting recalled glossy super-soaps from Dynasty to The OC.
The biting, blackly comic script by Ally McBeal writer David E Kelley was unconvincing at times – in my experience, teenagers grunt and drawl rather than speak in perfectly formed soundbites – while Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction was self-consciously cinematic.
The gratuitous lifestyle porn began to grate too, although that might have been partly envy. Everyone brunched by infinity pools or stared broodingly out of floor-to-ceiling windows with ocean views. Their kitchens alone were bigger than my house.
This intriguing scene-setter will probably bring me back next week but I didn’t want to watch the next episode straight away, like one tends to with top-drawer US dramas. Besides, I’m reluctant to brave the school gates much more often than I already do.