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It's pulpy fiction but it's done with a smart, adult sensibility.

Be warned about Big Little Lies (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) because nothing is quite what it seems, literally and figuratively. Based on Liane Moriarty's bestseller, the seven-episode series has an all-star cast – Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern – and all of them are excellent.

The marquee cast is what brings big attention to it. And one can see why they were drawn to this material. On the one hand, it's a vicious take on rich-white-people problems and at the same time it is a very grown-up, sensitive, grim chronicle of people sustained by their nerve-jangling neuroses.

It is also an intricate, elliptical mystery, one honed to an exquisite level of sophisticated slow unravelling in David E. Kelly's adaptation and made startlingly gorgeous but jagged through Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée's direction of all the episodes.

It starts with a murder and multiple episodes slip by without the revelation of who has died and whom the suspect might be. At regular intervals we get sound-bite commentary from people being interviewed by the police. And we get flashbacks that might be someone's fantasy or might be the killer's perspective on the night of the murder. You'll need your wits about you throughout.

Mainly, it is about the lives of a handful of women and their families in beautiful Monterey, Calif. They're all troubled in different ways. Some troubles are trivial and as the series progresses we learn who has the most traumatizing of troubles. At first, the series seethes with a kind of disgust for these women, then it shifts.

Everything starts on the first day of school as Madeline (Witherspoon), a major busybody of a mother, is taking her kid to school. On the way, she meets Jane Chapman (Woodley), a newly arrived single mother who seems worried from the outset about her son Ziggy fitting into the new area. Not so much worried about herself.

Madeline's bossy, brittle, angry attitude sets the tone at the start. She's viciously competitive and resentful, and Witherspoon is typically great as this type of quietly enraged woman. She does have a lot to deal with – her ex-husband and his younger second wife are living nearby and cramping her style.

Madeline is also picky about everything and constantly angry. When another mom drives too slowly, she sneers, from the safety of her car, "Get laid, bitch!" Her one true friend is Celeste (Kidman), whose twins are in the same class as Jane and Madeline's kids. Celeste seems to live an idyllic life, with a handsome husband (Skarsgard) who isn't around much but, when he is, he paws at her constantly like a lovesick teenager.

The first indication we get of the depth of Big Little Lies is the slow revelation that Celeste is abused by that husband – he's jealous, temperamental, controlling and violent. And, it seems, Celeste is struggling with the realization that she likes it, all this abuse. Kidman is wonderful and, mostly, disarmingly still and quiet as this struggling woman who seems besotted with her own captivity.

Madeline's main rival for alpha-mom status is Renata (Dern) who is, at the beginning, the most boastful, controlling mom in this gaggle of ultrarich mothers. Renata, when asked what she did during the summer, announces that she joined the board of PayPal and, when she excuses herself to take a phone call, blithely trumpets that the call is about her tickets for the show Hamilton.

In the competitive environment that exists between Madeline and Renata, viewers get to savour a dose of droll lampooning of the idly rich. But, as each episode adds to the full portrait, the drollery drops away. It is the new wife of Madeline's ex-husband who issues the key line telling viewers where the narrative is going: "None of us see things as they are, we see things as we are."

This is especially true of the initial picture we get of Jane. Clearly, she's a single mom in this community of couples, who has arrived for a very particular reason. That's the pulpy-fiction portion. The woman of mystery. But everything else in Big Little Lies leads toward a series of poised, vexing insights into the lives of truly desperate, disconsolate women.

It's strong stuff as both entertainment and social commentary.

Also airing this weekend

League of Exotique Dancers (Sunday, documentary Channel, 9 p.m.) is utterly entrancing. Rama Rau's documentary is a loving look at the stars of burlesque dancing from the fifties through the seventies – such ladies as Lovey Goldmine, Holiday O'Hara and Kitten Natividad. They were pioneering performers who sold sex in dance and disrobing routines before stripping became ubiquitous. They came from the days when, as one explains, there might be a secret coloured light signal visible from the stage – red meant the cops were in the house and the act had to be tamed down, and green mean to just go full tilt for the customers.

The occasion for the doc is a reunion in Las Vegas of the legends who are being inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. We see them dance now, some elderly and all of them elegant and unbowed. Some tell extraordinary tales and others are melancholy about the days when they were stars, enjoying the good times. The film also touches on issues of feminism and performance art and in each and every case, you realize you are meeting truly formidable women. An adorable and very smart documentary, highly recommended and, by the way, the documentary Channel is free to access on most cable systems right now. So, enjoy the va-voom.