'Big Little Lies' cast power ranking: Who's running the pack in HBO's drama series?

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Big Little Lies premieres Sunday night on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern, bringing to TV a collection of some of the strongest television performances of 2017. Film actors like Reese Witherspoon (who plays Madeline) and Nicole Kidman (Celeste) meet hybrid stars like Shailene Woodley (Jane) and Alexander Skarsgård (Perry) — and the combination is magical.

But among a stellar group of actors, who delivers the best performance? Let's rank it out.

The rankings are based on the performances of the principal adult cast members (no kids, though some of them are delightful) in the first six episodes of the series made available for critics. We'll start with the least impressive and work our way up to the elites.

Source: YouTube

8. Nathan Carlson, played by James Tupper

Nathan, Madeline's ex-husband, is a character who fulfills basically every trope of the "fun divorced dad who pushes responsibility onto his ex-wife" stereotype. Frankly, Tupper doesn't do much to elevate the character. His scenes are best used as small attention breaks while you wait for the far more interesting women to return.

7. Bonnie Carlson, played by Zoë Kravitz

Zoë Kravitz
Zoë Kravitz HBO

Ideally, Kravitz's Bonnie would be higher on this list, because she has some interesting moments. As Nathan's new wife, Bonnie is an earthy antidote to the suburban sterling around her, which are driving Madeline batty. She gets increasingly involved with the main story in the later episodes, but this is a stacked cast and she just doesn't have enough time to shine.

6. Perry Wright, played by Alexander Skarsgård

On one hand, Skarsgård juggles the kind of dangerous beauty of Celeste's abusive husband Perry. He's gorgeous on the outside, but Skarsgård gets at how rotten Perry is on the inside. On the other, the actor doesn't manage to marry Perry's two sides totally; it's a solid-but-inconsistent performance.

5. Jane Chapman, played by Shailene Woodley

Shailene Woodley
Shailene Woodley HBO

Woodley's got one of the hardest challenges of all: playing outsider Jane Chapman. She's got a lot of secrets, and Woodley does nicely at playing her as a guarded and wounded figure. Her wound can sometimes come across as dourness, but overall, she's clearly feeding off the energy of her veteran co-stars. This is some of Woodley's best work ever.

4. Ed Mackenzie, played by Adam Scott

Ben Wyatt did good! Scott, the former Parks and Recreation and Party Down star, acquits himself really well in this more dramatic role. He plays Madeline's second husband, Ed, nailing the submissive, then passive-aggressive, temperament of the character. He's a doof, and you can tell both what Madeline sees in him and why he'll never be enough for her.

3. Celeste Wright, played by Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman
Nicole Kidman HBO

Of the elite performances in Big Little Lies — the top three on this list — Kidman's is the most interior. Her steely, beautiful facade betrays little, while she lets flashes of the storm happening in her mind across her face in private moments. Watching Celeste's walls come down in later episodes is revelatory.

2. Madeline Martha Mackenzie, played by Reese Witherspoon

The Reesesurgence is alive and well in Big Little Lies, as Witherspoon finds the best fit for her since the halcyon days of her career. Like Tracy Flick in Election, Madeline Martha Mackenzie is type-A and and somewhat oblivious. Unlike Tracy, Witherspoon infuses Madeline with heart and brain. It's a delight to watch her work.

1. Renata Klein, played by Laura Dern

Laura Dern
Laura Dern HBO

We don't deserve Laura Dern. Remember that just a couple of years ago, she was playing Witherspoon's mom in Wild. Now, she's a peer and a fierce adversary as Renata Klein. The high-powered attorney runs the boards in Silicon Valley and owns the social scene among the Otter Bay Elementary School parents. She's a perfect villain, but Dern plays her with great pathos to avoid becoming a caricature. There's much to recommend Big Little Lies on, but even if the rest of it were worse, Dern's Renata would be worth the investment. It's the best TV performance of 2017 so far.

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