End of Season Report: Big Little Lies

9 May

Big Little Lies blurred the line largely but not entirely successfully between melodramatic pulp and very serious prestige television, producing a miniseries that was quite good but not quite great. Ultimately, Big Little Lies will be remembered best for its performances more than for its characters, and for its characters more than its story which was riveting enough from episode to episode but not quite up to the memorable standards of the canonical HBO shows of the past. The show was not helped by the gimmicks and storytelling methods utilized which served some purpose early on but which also led to a sense of misleading tension in the second half of the series which felt somewhat unfulfilled and took up valuable time that could have been used to spend more time with a couple of less developed characters.

It’s impossible to talk about the series without talking about two storytelling gimmicks which are used throughout the series and which may have initially served a smart and interesting subversive purpose but which through their continued use over the entire course of the series, felt distracting and a waste of screen time.

First, right from the very beginning, there’s the posing of the story as a murder mystery, by way of flash forwards showing two detectives investigating a murder. The detectives reveal only that there’s been a murder, but not of or by whom. Having seen this type of set up on many shows (Damages comes to mind), and not knowing much about the source material, for the first couple of minutes I though Big Little Lies was a murder mystery in which I would speculate who would be killed and by whom and that the case would slowly unfold over the course of the series, leading up to a climax where the case is solved or the murderer confesses in the last episode. It’s not and it doesn’t.

Second, the series is dotted from the start with the inter-splicing of several talking heads. Other moms, dads, and school officials from around Monterey, California, outside of the primary nine moms and dads exchange trashy rumors and gossip about those nine in the context of each being interviewed by the police after the murder, dishing on why each and every one of the major characters might be involved in the murder. This led me to believe Big Little Lies would be a Mean Girls for moms (“Mean Moms”), about the uber competitive nature of rich white moms in a chichi lefty California beach town. This was also a feint; it’s not what the show is about at all, and much like the murder mystery red herring, this feels like a little trick to deceive the viewer. Big Little Lies is certainly somewhat trashy, but more serious and character-driven than these gimmicks would have you believe.

The only purpose I can see for both of these story-telling gimmicks is to subvert our expectations into what kind of show Big Little Lies is, and in that purpose they are successful. Still, these two devices appear over and over throughout the entire run of the show and I can’t help but feel like the subversion, which revealed itself by the third episode at the latest, is not worth the use of all this valuable storytelling and character building time. Time which could be used to flesh out, say, Bonnie, who plays a pivotal role in the final moments despite never being afforded the character depths of Madeline, Celeste, or Jane. If absolutely necessary, having a flash forward for maybe five minutes at the beginning of the first episode would still have been a little strange and distracting but would have more than sufficed as the requisite red herring.

What Big Little Lies does have is excellent actors at its heart, especially the three core actresses, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley who play the biggest and best characters Madeline, Celeste, and Jane respectively.  All three of their storylines are moving, well-acted and play off each other very well. Jane’s struggles with her past rape play off of Kidman’s current difficulties coping with her abusive husband, even while no one else within the show knows about Celeste’s husband’s monstrous behavior. Everyone in the town sees Celeste as the bad-ass drop-dead gorgeous corporate lawyer with the perfect marriage who make the sacrifice of giving up her career to raise her kids entirely of her own volition. Madeline, who never got the education or career she wishes she had, is envious of the careers Celeste and Laura Dern’s Renata made for themselves, as well as frustrated that her ex, who was admittedly immature and unready for children when they were married, has put it all together just in time to marry a beautiful younger woman. She struggles for purpose, digging in to fights with her children, with her husband, and with Renata as outlets to channel her frustration. Jane is still dealing with her rape, which she never disclosed to anyone, with her raising a child on her own, and with the possibility, no matter how small, that her kid might not the sweet little harmless child she has presumed his entire life. The conflicts between non-character kids allow the actual character parents to fight amongst themselves in realistic ways without any one of them being completely at fault.

Big Little Lies more than anything gives these these actresses a showcase for their talents and puts them in roles that are juicy but which allow them to outshine the roles; without the layered portrayals, these roles simply wouldn’t work. We have to believe Madeline really feels conflicted about her affair; that she wants to remain with her husband but she also can’t seem to help but look elsewhere and that her having both of these opposing feelings is consistent with her character.  She knows what she did was stupid, but she wanted it in during the moment. Not that it’s necessary by any means to root for a character for it to be a good character, but Witherspoon makes us want to root for Madeline in spite of her shitty behavior towards her husband and erratic behavior towards her kids. She manages to portray Madeline as spiraling somewhat out of control without ever making her comical or campy.

Nicole Kidman manages to make us really understand what’s going through Celeste’s mind in a role where she’s far more reticent than Witherspoon’s Madeline. On the journey Celeste makings from thinking her marriages has problems but is salvageable to realizing she has to leave her husband, Kidman makes us understand viscerally and emotionally why she, a brilliant woman, doesn’t want to leave, and doesn’t want anyone else to know, and that why, as a lawyer, even though on some layer she understands what’s happening, she still feels like she can’t, doesn’t want to, or shouldn’t do anything about it. When Celeste eventually leaves, we know the exact proximate factor is her son becoming a bully, but to fully convince, we have to feel Celeste has turned a corner over the course of the show and is ready to leave, and because of Kidman we do.

Shailene Woodley has a slightly easier job than Kidman or Witherspoon, but she still executes it to perfection as Jane, the new, poor, mom in town trying to fit in to a town in which she doesn’t really belong. Madeline’s introduction to Jane is the first sign that Big Little Lies isn’t the type of show it tries to pass itself off as initially. Instead of hostile and alienating, type A mom Madeline is overly welcoming to Jane, no matter how different she is, and perhaps partly because of it, and though Jane struggles with fish-out-of-water situation, it’s much less an important theme to her character that one would think based on the on-paper description.

Big Little Lies couldn’t quite make it all the way to the difficult task of having all this believable character conflict with no actual villain. In order to make just about every other character on the show three-dimensional and at least somewhat easy to root for, the show stuffed all of the antagonism deep within Alexander Scarsgard’s Perry, making him one truly evil dude.  Jane is worried over the course of the show that her abuser’s innate evil somehow seeped down into her child, which it didn’t, but Perry’s behavior did influence his children, as the slow building reveal is that Renata’s daughter’s abuser was not in fact Jane’s child, but Celeste and Perry’s. When Celeste realizes that her kids are actually suffering from Perry’s abuse towards her, she decides to leave, and that sets off the final actions leaving to Perry’s death. So Perry is not only responsible for beating Celeste, but is actually responsible for the bullying between children that leads to Renata and Madeline’s fight that dominates the first half of the show.

The general build to the ending is largely well-executed, particularly the changing relationships between the moms. The ending is somewhat anticlimactic. The murder feels out of place for the story being told, and by the time it happens, it’s fairly easy to guess who is going to get murdered, if not who actually commits the murder which really doesn’t seem to be all that important in the context of the show anyway.

There are two final issues with the ending. First, Perry being Jane’s rapist comes absolutely out of nowhere and feels so out of place and unnecessary. Yes, technically there’s no reason he couldn’t be, but it’s beyond random, and only foreshadowed in that he’s the only character it could be if it had to be a character we know on the show. Everything was set up for her actual rapist to be unseen; and the groundwork was so well laid for her to be able to empathize with Celeste simply through their shared experiences, rather than needing to have suffered the abuse at the hands of the same person.

Secondly, all the women banding together to lie to the police makes sense for the literary purpose of sealing their bond as a group, but doesn’t make a whole ton of practical sense at the moment. The homicide was very obviously accidentally and in self-defense and was perfectly and pretty clearly justifiable and keeping their stories straight would be much more difficult than the alternative. This is much less of an issue than the previous, and I’m nitpicking a little bit, but it felt like their lying was forced to give them all this secret, rather than what they would these characters would actually do.

Big Little Lies is definitely an overall win and a nice little miniseries delivered at the beginning of a year. It was extremely bingable; I watched it over the course of a couple days, and it’s very digestible. It’s not going to be remembered as an all-time classic, or an absolute must-watch. But for a weekend in, it hits the spot.

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