Big Little Issues

So, we’re like, seriously using the word good? Big Little Lies is a show engineered by movie stars who, while slumming it on premium cable, built a plot on an absurd foundation that seems, at first blush, almost quintessentially reflective of First World Problems. But is there territory worth exploring underneath the lustrous veneer?

This show has already been described as something of a paint-by-numbers hybrid of the Hills and the Slap (two shows whose emotional and narrative depth are more or less encapsulated fully right there in their two-word titles) here and here and, I’m sure, elsewhere. Big Little Lies seemed like maybe it would be some admixture of reality television’s lifestyles of the rich and famous-esque voyeurism infused with a Slap-style incident of on-child violence that dragged the parents of the aggrieved kid deeper and more viciously in than the incident seemingly required.

Here’s the thing. It’s more than that.

Many have also made mention about how Big Little Lies deftly skirts classification as “affluence” or “architecture” porn. Sure, the driving interludes look like car commercials. (See: six-figure vehicles flanked by the grand Pacific on the one side and mountain sections that look like cuts of London broil on the other, set to good music.) Sure, the excessively see-through houses look like something giant scientists might create to do lab experiments on humans. And, every night, as eventide descends upon glittery Monterey, the characters all break out wine which likely costs normal people’s rent, which they drink aside the synthetic light of their blue fire glass. Fancy, right? But for a show to function on a human level, the emotional connections made with characters has to transcend tax brackets. Unlike its small screen progenitors, Big Little Lies, here, largely succeeds.

Exposition dump: the show opens on a crime scene: a murder. And the twist is that both the murderer and the murderee remain undisclosed through at least the first three episodes. The precipitating event, it’s constructed to suggest, is an alleged strangling (not to death) of a first grader, by a classmate, that occurs on the first day of school. Parents, arms at-the-ready, insert themselves into the fray. Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon), a tigress who is the ostensible monarch of the direct parental circuit and therefore seems duty-bound to do so, involves herself thoroughly despite not having her “dog” (an adorable young musicophile named Chloe) in the fight. Meanwhile, an exotic stranger has just arrived in town: Shailene Woodley’s plain Jane Chapman. (“Exotic” here meaning only: not nouveau riche.) Madeline meets Jane serendipitously, and then summarily adopts her. Though recruit might be the better word. New blood, Jane is unaffiliated and thus represents a potential able-bodied soldier for Madeleine to marshal into her war of social dominion. Mysteries of Jane’s origin and reason for arrival abound. The last tine of the three-prong storyline involves Celeste and Perry Wright, played by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård respectively. Their marriage, when gazed covetously at from the outside, seems amorous, picture-perfect, ideal- but is actually a shambolic psychological chess match fraught with psychosexual tension and plagued by horrific physical abuse. There are other husbands, who do not much like each other. And new wives, who the local dads leer at lustily like long-tongued cartoon wolves. There’s some solid Little League baseball action.

So. What works, and what doesn’t?

It’s mostly good. But there are bad, bad parts of this show. (And not, “we’ve done a bad, bad thing” bad. Like, shitty television show bad.) Mostly, when the text from the original book bleeds too noticeably into the dialog of the show.

Side note: books are weird things. Their weirdness perhaps best summarized here:

But there’s another weird thing about books. Because they are just black words on an off-white page, arranged into small things we call sentences and larger things we call paragraphs and then larger things we call chapters, and because there is no neat correlation between the intake-stimulus of sentence / paragraph / chapter and the sloppy, inchoate unfolding of actual life, we grant things in books that we just cannot let slide when acted out by living people. (It’s funny though, that good fiction across all media strives to mimic the flow of real life while humans simultaneously try to contort the organic chaos of their lives into the narrative shape of bad fiction. “Beginning a new chapter of my life!” People declare in their Facebook statuses. Etc. etc.) Because books deviate a requisite number of degrees from “real life,” we allow for them to include things like “Would you dance with me? I just want to hold you, look into your eyes, be in love with you. Feel you being in love with me. Would you?” But we are much more rigorous and unforgiving about seeing a real person use their real mouth to say something like that out loud.

This show too-often goes, welp, so much for verisimilitude. Case in point: no human has ever spoken aloud anything even resembling: “I got asked out on a date by a second grader no less. He wore white docksiders.” No punctuation between ‘on a date’ and ‘by a second grader no less.’

And no one uses the words “rote” or “gem” in real life.[i] Don’t writers feel bad about shoehorning these obviously ripped-from-the-page lines of dialog into actors’ mouths? Episode 2 opens with Reese Witherspoon waxing way too poetic about the ocean and its abundant mysteries. (FYI: It’s powerful but mostly fast.) Isn’t it more fun to let Reese Witherspoon say the hysterically uncool: “You know what? I’m a lady and I’ve never said this to anybody ever in my entire life but I’m going to say it to you, you can go fuck yourself on the head.”[ii] These things happen in real life. Pithy, on-the-spot Sorkinisms rarely do.

There are some lines that get it right. “Do not fuck with my daughter” is a throwaway cliché. “Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday party” is gold. The nadirs, though, of the Big Little Lie experience come when the actors are forced to deliver the afore-referenced painfully perfected-upon lines. They stare wistfully, squinch-eyed and just off-camera, then try their best with these stilted monologues. Or they’ll say things like, “we’ll bludgeon you with kindness, to death” and “you’re dead in this town,” (dramatic ba-da-dum!) without a shred of insincerity. (It’s foreshadowing, you see! The ocean is a metaphor!) When the show transitions to human moments: a naturalistic heart-to-heart in a living room, a daughter reaching her personal ickiness threshold on talking sex with her mom that sounds, to the ear, distinctly non-literary? These are good moments.

But the show isn’t completely unknowing. Each episode opens with [what is almost definitely] an automatic curtain raising slowly to reveal an ungentle sea-scene. It’s a repeat flashback to an actual room, and what’s outside of it. We come to learn that this is a narratively-critical scene. But maybe this curtain-rise is also an acknowledgement of the fictional element. Something rented from or used to invoke the idea of stage-plays, or other forms of more deliberate and conscious drama. Justifying, a bit, the theatricality of some of the more over-the-top lines.

To further ground the melodrama with some outsider perspective, the show intercuts to scenes from a police precinct, wherein multiple ancillary moms, dads and teachers are giving testimony that is, likely, chock full of oblique clues about the murder, or its inspiration. (If we’re supposed to sort of be laughing at these overbearing and indulgent main characters, then these people are our avatars.) Except, this conceit, the talking heads’ opinionating on the action, is being referred to as a Greek chorus. Per Wikipedia, a Greek chorus is a “homogenous, non-individualised group of performers, who comment with a collective voice on the dramatic action.” These various character witnesses don’t really speak with a collective voice at all. In fact, these little intermezzos are absolutely “individualised.” Each talking head delivers their line like they’re auditioning for a Henny Youngman sound-alike competition. It’s not a Greek chorus; it’s Greek American Idol.

The true core of the show, what it gets the most right, however, is its spotlighting of survival, denial and suffering in its myriad forms. The nominal “big” from the title comes not from the indeterminate size of the lies but, in actuality, via some big-hitting issues: spousal abuse, rape, post-traumatic stress disorder. In an airport novel setting, topics with this sort of gravity would seem lascivious and grossly played-for-kicks. Only if the world itself warrants credulity, does the lens which it uses to probe these issues seem licensed.

Take Kidman’s Celeste. Not a certified psychiatrist myself, it’s not really within my purview to say something like “I think they did a good job when they had a character react [insert how a character would realistically react, psychologically].” But when, in Episode 3, Nicole Kidman says she’s upset that her husband doubts her love for him but that, post-therapy, she’s hopeful about their future together for the first time in a long time, I think that they did, in fact, do a good job. That she says she’s trying to decide whether or not she’s sad or happy is telling. Because there’s a reason why she looks only sad. However proud, or hopeful, she may’ve felt about her husband coming clean about his violent tendencies during their therapy session doesn’t outweigh or undo the violence he committed in the first place. Admitting you have a problem may be the first step in solving a problem, but it doesn’t take bruises off the skin, and it definitely doesn’t clear out the mental scar tissue of systematic verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Celeste is a former high-powered attorney, so to put in the parlance of her profession: plea bargains don’t get you 100% off the hook. Even low-powered attorneys know that.

Jane Chapman’s mystery box is the most tightly-sealed and, like most tightly-sealed boxes marked “do not open,” is the most intriguing. She was raped, and suffers from PTSD that manifests in paranoia, vivid hallucinations, and severe emotional caginess. It will be interesting if the show shows, really, what a person who has suffered greatly means when they say they’ll “never” be the same. We know that it’s been approximately 6 years since the rape took place, and Jane still sleeps with a gun under her pillow. No one ever believes people when they use superlative words like “never.” But some traumas are chronic. It’s horrifying and fascinating watching Shailene Woodley act out, convincingly, what it means to hurt forever.

And the ringleader, Madeline Martha Mackenzie, which is how she introduces herself though she’s only ever called Madeline, ties the strands together. Whether you like it or not. She’s losing territory in the ground war of her daughter’s affection to her ex-husband’s Bohemian new flame. She’s losing bureaucratic battles with city officials about the public viability of an Avenue Q production. She’s upsetting Adam Scott. As the oft-remarked “most volatile” of the bunch, is she also the murderess?

Who knows or cares. Any amateur Agatha Christies will tell you: the whodunit itself isn’t very interesting if the inciting elements, characters, and motivations, ulterior or overt, aren’t captivating in their own right. Although, if we do want to indulge in some conspiracy theories, why was the controversial (pronounced with a sibilant ‘s’) play director lurking creepily around the corner in the coffee shop in the fifteenth (or so) minute of Episode 1? The subsequent cut was to Jane but he, presumably, was staring at Madeleine, from so-close a distance that you’d imagine he’d have been noticed by someone. We are all sure that this is not a throwaway appearance. Is Ziggy as angelic as he seems? Are these twins Shining-level demonic; apples that haven’t fallen far from Alexander Skarsgård’s brutalizing tree?

The real question is: do we care about these characters? I think we do. Shailene Woodley is so real it feels like she might be on the couch in sweats with you when she’s not onscreen. Adam Scott is remarkable when he’s not mispronouncing the word ‘irreparably’ twice in a row. Reese Witherspoon, when she’s not monologizing about the deepness and inscrutability of large bodies of water, fizzles and leaks whereabouts outraged fizzling and emotional leakages seem appropriate. Ageless beauty Nicole Kidman plays perfectly the role of ageless beauty making countless algebraic life decisions concerning fight, flight and forgiveness; the murky definition of consent; of the prospect of self-liberation and the weighing of personal wellbeing against the fracturing of a family unit. Even Alexander Skarsgård, who vacillates mercurially between sheepdog and Doberman, is doing a great job.

So, maybe it’s the most upper-crustian of First World Problems. Maybe, because it’s already so hard to empathize with the fabulously rich, there’s not much empathy to be had when a fabulously rich woman segues from describing her million-dollar home makeover to lamenting her perceived sexual “desirability.” Maybe this is not all that serious. But, shows have to be about something. And generally speaking, most people do let the most serious things happening in their lives dominate their thoughts, their daily discussions. Even if that “thing” is a non-confirmed case of Kindergarten bullying.

And then there is that murder, don’t forget.

So yes, this show is almost entirely white-washed, and centered around the ludicrously affluent. But, smirk if you want, BLL packs enough uppercuts and touches on enough capital-S, capital-T ‘Serious Topics’ to be considered a television show worthy of discussion. For all its faux-dark, thematic undertones and on-the-nose exposition, there are also flourishes of humanistic brilliance, moments of welcome levity, and some finely-tuned studies of trauma and pain and the mechanisms with which complex humans use to masquerade through the day while they cope, while they endure.

To succeed in the long run, Big Little Lies will be forced to continue walking this tightrope of tone. Too self-serious, and it delves into Slap territory: melodramatic shlock so cringe-inducingly back-patting it blitzes straight through ‘so bad it’s good’ into whatever dark place lies beyond. Too satirical, however, and all the wink-wink nod-nodding delegitimizes the very real and very important issues at play. Three episodes in, the funambulist is still aboard the high wire. But the net below is littered with the dead corpses of HBO shows which have unsuccessfully toed the line.

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[i] Except, I guess, lapidarists, probably.

[ii] Call this the Peter Klaven Formula. Every time Paul Rudd’s character in I Love You, Man tried impressing Jason Segel’s character with a from-the-hip, “cool-sounding” quip, what came blurting out was a malapropistic butt-fumble instead of a bon mot. Like “go fuck yourself on the head.”

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