LOS ANGELES – “Sex and the City” and “Girls” may have established HBO as a playground for women seeking love and laughs, but when it comes to serious drama, the pay-cable giant remains a boys’ club.
Of the 20 dramatic series in HBO’s history, only two — the short-lived “Tell Me You Love Me” and the enduring “True Blood” — were headlined by a female actress. HBO has done slightly better with its miniseries, but it took Oscar heavyweights such as Helen Mirren (“Elizabeth I”), Kate Winslet (“Mildred Pierce”) and Frances McDormand (“Olive Kitteridge”) to get their stories on the schedule.
That investment has almost always paid off. Anna Paquin took home a Golden Globe for “Blood.” Mirren, Winslet and McDormand won Emmys. With that kind of track record, “Big Little Lies,” a seven-hour series premiering Sunday in which female characters dictate the action, shouldn’t feel like an anomaly. But it does.
“For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set and I had no other women to talk to,” Reese Witherspoon said. “I think they call it Smurfette Syndrome, where she’s got 100 Smurfs around, and she’s the only girl. I mean, who gave birth to all those Smurfs, anyways?”
This adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel about motherhood and murder in a tony seaside town probably would be headed to Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel if Witherspoon hadn’t put her weight behind the project, in front of and behind the camera. Along the way, she recruited all-star gal pals Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley to join her.
In less than five years, Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, has built a solid reputation for shepherding projects not only for herself (“Wild,” “Hot Pursuit”) but other actresses. She gave Rosamund Pike the juicy title role in the company’s biggest success to date, 2014’s “Gone Girl.”
That wasn’t going to happen this time. The principal character in “Lies,” Madeline Mackenzie, could easily be a grown-up version of Tracy Flick, the annoyingly ambitious teenage politician Witherspoon played in the 1999 film “Election.”
Despite her bald ambition, Mackenzie is realizing that the sacrifices she made to raise two children may have kept her from forming an identity outside of volunteering at the local community theater, sneaking away for oversized glasses of wine and playing chauffeur to her unappreciative kids.
She grew up wanting to be Betty Grable, one catty neighbor remarks, but she ended up as Betty Crocker. That doesn’t sit well with our heroine.
“When I started this, I wasn’t sure I could play this character, a bossy know-it-all, a busybody,” Witherspoon said last month. “But as you get further into the series, you start to realize the reasons why she is so controlling, so high-strung, because she’s concealing something very difficult for her to hold.”
Anyone who has read Moriarty’s book, or who watches the first 10 minutes of Sunday’s premiere, knows that Mackenzie’s emotional instability is the catalyst for a gruesome murder at a grade-school fundraiser, setting the stage for an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. But the real draw of the miniseries, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and written by David E. Kelley (every other TV law show), is how events elevate the seething between the females in a California neighborhood into a full boil.
“Women,” comments the husband of Dern’s character, who sits on the board of PayPal and the local aquarium, yet spends happy hour obsessing about her social status. “You want to be the envy of your friends, but God forbid you garner too much of it.”
Kidman signed up almost overnight to play Mackenzie’s best friend, an abused housewife with a few secrets of her own.
“I really related to all the women in the book, and I’ve met many women who feel the same way,” Kidman said. “There’s just such an array of emotions in the piece.” Kidman, who is enjoying an Oscar nomination for portraying a very different kind of mother in “Lion,” also signed on as a producer.
Despite the team effort, this is Witherspoon’s moment. She will most certainly be on a shortlist come Emmy time, and Pacific Standard has a tantalizing slate of projects in the works, including a biopic on singer Peggy Lee.
“I was watching incredibly talented women playing wives and girlfriends — thankless parts — and I had just had enough,” she said. “We need to see real women’s experiences, whether it involves domestic violence, sexual assault, motherhood, romance, infidelity or divorce. We need to see these things because as human beings we can learn from art. And what can you do if you never see these things reflected? These are the kinds of projects that shift consciousness. That’s where my passion lies.”