By Noah Harper
“Big Little Lies,” an hour-long drama currently in its fourth episode on HBO, has an incredible cast. Led by Reese Witherspoon, who plays an idle, troublemaking mom, the show also features Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz, among others. On the surface, it appears to be a class drama about mothers and their children, but it soon becomes apparent that it is about far more than bourgeois parenting problems.
Female-led prestige TV shows are few and far between, which begs the question: How many famous women does it take for Hollywood to let them lead a big TV show? There is an obvious inequality when it comes to how many female stars it takes to get one of these kinds of shows made, versus ones starring male actors. It seems to only take one big male star to get his own show—Amazon is just giving them away at this point (see: “Goliath,” “Hand of God,” “Bosch”).
But it is not just the concentration of great actors that makes “Big Little Lies” worth watching; visually and technically too, it is remarkable. The director, Jean-Marc Vallée (of “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and “Wild” fame), takes some risky stylistic choices, especially with the show’s editing, in telling the story of this affluent Monterey, CA, community—risks that end up paying off.
For instance, in a scene set in Witherspoon’s character Madeline Mackenzie’s oceanside home (which looks like it is straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog), there is a distant, hand-held establishing shot of the family getting ready for dinner, then it cuts to a few snippets of local authorities discussing a grisly murder, and then it cuts back to the family eating and the actual scene begins. It is an interesting, elliptical form of editing that finds a new way to set up narrative context—it works, and it is not jarring either. These kinds of cuts serve the purpose of reminding the audience about the killing, which can seem somewhat distant from the actual story at times. We do not yet know who was brutally murdered at the PTA fundraiser, but we can guess.
The murder mystery provides a necessary hook for the first couple episodes, but it is not what the show is about. In the pilot, we are introduced to Madeline Martha Mackenzie—the intense mother played by Witherspoon—who befriends a young mom new to the neighborhood at the first day of school. Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a single mother with a hidden past whose son, Ziggy, becomes important to the show’s central conflict.
After dropping off their kids for the first day of first grade, Madeline and Jane return to find something amiss: Amabella, the daughter of Renata Klein (Laura Dern) was choked quite viciously by someone, and she’s blaming Ziggy for it.
This starts the currently unfolding drama. Madeline rallies to this “injustice” like a banner, and decides that she will not let Dern’s daughter smear Ziggy’s good name. She stages a boycott of Amabella’s birthday party, opting alternatively to take a cohort of dissenters to go see “Frozen on Ice” instead. Of course, this only makes things worse.
When summarized like this, the plot can seem a bit unimportant and contrived. I readily agree—why should we care about the foibles of these coast-dwelling elites? Who cares who does and who doesn’t go to a birthday party?
While the first point of interest in “Big Little Lies,” is, of course, the murder, it is not the meat of the show. The killing has been teased (a bit incessantly) episode to episode, but, four episodes in, I am less interested in who gets murdered and why than in the surprisingly deep exploration of trauma and domestic abuse. This is what keeps me coming back to the show, not the birthday parties and mom drama.
We see this the most with Nicole Kidman’s character, Celeste, in the third and fourth episodes. Celeste is married to a much younger man, Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård, and they have twin boys together. Celeste and Perry share a difficult, often physically violent relationship—their fights usually ending in sex. In couple’s therapy, they admit as much, both candidly worried about this dangerous feedback loop they have created. Kidman’s character, who at first is not as central to the plot as Woodley or Witherspoon, comes to the forefront with this frank portrayal of a complicated relationship.
Similarly, Woodley’s Jane is haunted by an abusive past. As the show develops, we find that Jane is the only main character who is not affluent; she recently moved to Monterey with her son for the good schools and is trying to find work as an accountant. She is struggling with a past trauma, perpetrated by Ziggy’s dad. In the first episode, she wakes up to find her son standing over her in the middle of the night. He is a kind, sweet boy, but even she begins to wonder—could he have actually choked that girl? To avoid spoilers, all I will say is that her son could be interpreted to be the physical manifestation of the violence in her past. As a single parent trying to raise a child alone, Jane is, at the same time, trying to not mentally and emotionally associate him with his abusive father. She’s working hard to break this psychological cycle, and it’s not easy.
Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, empathizes with Jane, because she was once in a similar position. While Madeline is now married to Ed (played by an affable Adam Scott), and has a daughter, Chloe, with him, there is also a teenager, Abigail, from a previous marriage. Abigail’s dad abandoned them 15 years ago, only to recently resurface in Monterey, remarried to Zoë Kravitz’s character, Bonnie, and with a new kid too.
“You’re drawn to damaged people,” Ed tells Madeline, as they discuss her helping out Jane and Ziggy.
“Last time I checked, that’s not a character flaw,” she retorts.
On paper, the happenings of the Monterey bourgeoisie should not be that interesting, but within the relationships that are portrayed, there is something universal being examined. Questions regarding why people hurt each other and living with trauma are central to the show.
In a broader context as well, this show adds something to the current canon of TV drama. I am a snobby TV-watcher, but after seeing several episodes of “Big Little Lies,” it forced me to pause and reevaluate the television I think is the best, and why. If you asked me to name some of my favorite shows, I will instinctively list “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” and “The Wire,” all great, but very much male-led programs. There is a broader trend in our culture with prestige TV: The tendency to critically minimize female-led shows as vapid and unimportant. But this show is a disruptor and, hopefully, a trend-setter. We need more female-led hour-long TV dramas to be taken seriously by critics.
“Big Little Lies” is compelling, exciting and forward-thinking. It surprises me that I am this interested in the social lives of the California elite’s first-graders, but I’m definitely going to keep on watching.