The real story is the women, the mothers that they portray and reflect back to us. In a period of filmtime where we complain about the dearth of female roles, the HBO series throws them at us. If you’re watching the show starring Reese Witherspoon as Madeline, Nicole Kidman as Celeste, Shailene Woodley as Jane and Laura Dern as Renat, take the poll and let us know your favorite mum.
#BigLittleLies has been dubbed "The Real Housewives of Monterey" Who's your favorite mama? #NicoleKidman #reesewitherspoon #shailenewoodley— Chapter1-Take1 (@simcarter) March 6, 2017
Oh, by the way, I can’t help but wonder, what if instead of David E. Kelly writing the script based on Moriarty’s best selling book, and Jean-Marc Vallée directing, executive producers Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon had selected a couple of women to do the heavy lifting??? Just sayin'.
Anyway ... I read Emily Nussbaum’s take on the series in The New Yorker and found it so compelling, I wanted to share it with you here.
THE SURPRISING GENEROSITY OF “BIG LITTLE LIES”
While the show begins with a Schadenfreudian air—a prestige-TV twist on “Real Housewives”—it deepens, and becomes a sensitive reflection on trauma.
By Emily Nussbaum
‘‘The show is most interesting when it’s examining the aftermath of violence.
Illustration by Keith Negley
The trailer for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” made my heart race, but it also made me wary. The whole project felt like a seduction by someone with big, shiny teeth: so many A-list Hollywood stars, running barefoot on California sand, hands clutching muscular backs in ecstasy, all scored to the urgent bounce of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” A murder mystery set on beachfront property, the show seemed, much like “The Affair” and “Revenge” before it, to be aimed squarely at my demographic: women with an equal craving for murder mysteries and beachfront property. More suspiciously, it was written by David E. Kelley, the creator of “Ally McBeal,” my least favorite anti-feminist fantasia.
But sometimes a seduction, like a beach house, rewards the investment. “Big Little Lies” is based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, one of many recent dishy dark comedies about liberal moms chafing in their marriages, reduced to competing for spots in the school parking lot. The adaptation trades the book’s Australian setting for gleaming Monterey. It’s directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” and he does a wonderful job capturing the luxe bohemia of velvet-rope yoga classes and shabby-chic seaside restaurants, Nancy Meyers kitchens and decks made for perfect sunsets. But while the show begins with a Schadenfreudian air—like a prestige-TV twist on the “Real Housewives” franchises—it deepens. Generous to its characters, even those who begin as clichés, the series becomes a reflection on trauma; at its best moments, it makes risky observations, especially about the dynamics of domestic abuse. Even when it doesn’t dig so deep, it’s still full of strong performances, including those by a terrific set of child actors, whose unforced sweetness is a reminder of who the victims are when family life turns ugly.
The story begins with the sound of a person gasping, in either panic or passion. Someone—the identity of the victim is itself a mystery—has been killed during a fund-raiser for a school called Otter Bay. Initially, we learn the details via cable drama’s latest pet structure: interrogations by the police, punctuated by flashbacks of the events leading up to the crime, doubling as unreliable voice-overs. “True Detective” pioneered the technique; “The Affair” has used it, too. In “Big Little Lies,” the witnesses being questioned aren’t the suspects but a Greek chorus of Otter Bay parents, whose put-downs reminded me of the narrator of the opening of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” a voyeur who sees the book’s main character in coldly satirical terms. If the story were all this contemptuous, it would be brittle stuff.
Instead, those camp zingers (“She grew up wanting to be Betty Grable, I think—ended up Betty Crocker”) work in counterpoint to the flawed but not cartoonish women we come to know—and it’s that tension that drives the series. Like cast members on a reality show’s third season, each woman is hyperconscious of her own “type,” and, by extension, how the culture sees her story, through condescending lenses like chick lit and mommy wars. At times, the women embrace those roles. The chirpy, know-it-all Madeline Martha Mackenzie—a Reese Witherspoon character played perfectly by Reese Witherspoon—introduces herself with a showoff’s humility. “It doesn’t really count,” she says, of her side gig in community theatre, contrasting herself with the school’s “career mommies.” Like Jane Austen’s Emma, she adopts a project: Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a lower-middle-class single mother, an outsider who gets dismissed by the Greek chorus as “a dirty old Prius parked outside of Barneys.” There’s also Nicole Kidman, as Celeste, a corporate lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, and Laura Dern, as a Silicon Valley macher whose daughter is bullied at school. Madeline is married to a nice-guy Web designer, played by Adam Scott, but she’s rattled by the presence of her ex-husband, a V.C. type who flaunts his yogafied new wife, played by Zoë Kravitz; their second child, who attends Otter Bay; and the family’s ostentatiously Zen life style.
As a school battle builds over whether Jane’s sweet son Ziggy is the bully in question, Madeline, Jane, and Celeste bond, and not merely in the Team Madeline sense. Six episodes in (I haven’t seen the finale), it’s pretty clear what sort of revelation is emerging—an overlap of family-abuse histories. But the show isn’t, at its core, a whodunit. Like “Happy Valley” and “Top of the Lake,” “Big Little Lies” is most interesting when it’s examining the aftermath of violence—and the false faces that women put on, rather than risk pity. “I still hope that whoever he is is a nice guy,” one character says, musing over an incident from her past. “That, like, maybe that night was just a bad misunderstanding? Or a night gone wrong. Or he had a bad day.” It’s an exchange that captures the crazy-making quality of abuse, the temptation to rewrite history, erase it—anything to avoid that other standard female role: the victim in a Lifetime movie of the week.
The standout performances are by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård, as a couple who are the subject of titillated envy. Celeste is the town’s most stylish hostess; Perry is the hot, younger jet-setting husband who can’t keep his hands off her. They’ve got Instagram-pretty twins and a house out of Architectural Digest. They’re too showily sexual to be grownups—or, at least, that’s how the Greek chorus sees them. It’s quickly apparent that something else is going on: whenever they’re alone, he picks a fight, getting physical fast. Although they seem to have sex non-stop, the arguments and the sex aren’t really separate, and the sex itself is only superficially consensual—as episodes go by, it’s hard not to suspect that Celeste is consenting, in part, so that she doesn’t have to admit that if she didn’t agree he wouldn’t stop.
These scenes of gray-area marital rape are filmed in ways that hover queasily between pornography and horror. When Celeste struggles, it could be violence or a power play—both she and Perry are complicit in the decision not to clarify that. But the violent sequences also help us understand the story the couple has sold not just to the neighbors but to themselves: that they are simply more passionate than normal people. When this notion begins to unravel in therapy, it’s peculiarly touching. As chilling as his character is, Skarsgård makes him more than a Lifetime monster; often, Perry seems to buy his own con, in which he’s merely the boyish, insecure satellite of his beautiful wife. The fact that her cage looks enviable makes it harder to acknowledge how dangerous he is; it’s easier to carry on their shared mythology.
While I watched Kidman, it was impossible not to think of all her other roles. I first saw her in the terrifying “Dead Calm,” in which she faked love for her rapist in order to survive. Then, there was “Eyes Wide Shut,” about a woman whose tightly wound husband (played by her tightly wound then husband, Tom Cruise) goes crazy, because he suspects that she once had a sexual fantasy—not even an affair!—about someone other than him. She was even better as the manipulator in “To Die For,” playing a girlish spider whose flies had no chance. In each role, there is something waxen and watchful and self-possessed about Kidman, so that, even when she’s smiling, she never seems liberated. While other actors specialize in transparency, Kidman has a different gift: she can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.
As Celeste, she keeps lowering her head and raising her eyes, always feminine, glamorous, and diplomatic. It makes it all the more powerful to watch Kidman’s eyes connect with someone else’s whenever something big happens—when she realizes, over drinks, that Madeline is lying about her marriage, too; when she bubbles with taboo joy at the notion of going back to work. In one lovely scene, Jane tells her new friends how detached she feels, as if she were peering at them from far away rather than sitting with the two of them. As Madeline chatters, Celeste stays quiet, locking eyes with Jane. The camera holds on the two of them, capturing the early alchemy of a friendship—and the suggestion that, even in mean-girl world, women might choose to be allies instead of enemies. ♦’’
Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker.