Big Little Lies – Season 1 (HBO)
Written by David E. Kelly
Directed Jean-Marc Vallée
Madeline Mackenzie is a wealthy woman living in Monterrey, California where she spends her time shuttling her youngest daughter to school and playdates while helping produce a local production of Avenue Q. On the first day of school, Madeline meets Jane, a single mom who has just moved to town. During pick up, the daughter of Renata Klein, a fellow power mom, accuses Jane’s son of choking her during class. This moment sets off a series of conflicts between Renata and Madeline, who stands up for Jane. Meanwhile, Madeline’s friend Celeste is dealing with an increasingly abusive husband, trying to hide her bruises and wounds when going out for coffee with friends. Throughout the series, we’re given flash-forwards to the night of a murder that happens at a school fundraiser, slowly learning the details and which of our female leads was involved.
Big Little Lies seems like another soap opera with its focus on wealthy characters, mainly women who have shallow rivalries and drama like the unknown identity of a child’s father and secret affairs between characters. However, the direction and cinematography elevate the material in a way that surprised me. The creators take domestic conflicts and explore them with a depth of empathy you won’t find on most soap-operatic series. Madeline could easily be a caricature, but instead, she’s shown to be more than a nervously talkative rich woman. As the season progresses, we learn more about the complexities of her first marriage which left her raising a daughter on her own. Her ex, Nathan, has remarried a younger, very granola woman named Bonnie. Madeline meanwhile married Ed, a stable website designer but a bit boring and routine after seven years of marriage.
These relationships are explored, and aspects are revealed that challenge our expectations. Ed meets up with Nathan to try and broker some peace about issues related to Abigail, the eldest child of Madeline’s. In the aftermath of their conversation, which feels very mundane, the two men begin posturing and reinterpreting the interaction as the other doing a bit of chest puffing. The passive aggressive threats of kicking the other man’s ass always occur in private and ultimately bear no fruit, because while these men speak the language of confrontation, they are way too pampered and safe to come to blows.
I have become a complete sucker for Laura Dern and am in the camp that she can do no wrong at this point in career. Her turn as the potential villainess, Renata Klein is thankfully subverted by the script spending time with her at home, arguing and talking about her daughter’s abuses with her husband. She has every right to be enraged that someone is choking and biting her child and she is very aware of how men have historically put women in positions of submission. There’s never a moment where Renata falls into being one-dimensional, and by the end of the season, she feels just as developed and honest as the other women in this story.
Along the way, some subplots feel strained especially when the audience will know exactly where they are leading. By the middle of the season, I knew who the father of Jane’s son was, but the series kept teasing it out. I suspect anyone watching and paying attention will know the identity as well. Because Jane doesn’t make the connection until the final moments of the season finale we don’t get the catharsis that is more interesting to see than the artificial tension. I’m hoping in season 2 we get to see Jane processing the truth behind the man who fathered her child and what that means about her fears surrounding the young man her son is becoming.
There is a danger that Big Little Lies could end up being another Desperate Housewives, especially in the ironically juxtaposed police interviews. Mostly comedic actors play the supporting players, so there are moments where the humor undercuts the seriousness of what is happening in these characters lives. Thankfully, writer David E. Kelly knows to refrain from framing the abuses Celeste is enduring with these segments. The better moments come when we see the gossipy conjecture of fellow parents about Madeline’s private life followed by scenes where what is happening with Madeline completely undercuts their inferences.
Big Little Lies isn’t going to change your life, but it gets so many things right this genre of show otherwise fails to accomplish in its network television counterparts. There is a noted sensitivity to the issues being brought up which never sensationalizes or diminishes the characters. At the same time, a healthy sense of humor stops the show from becoming an over-inflated dour drama. Instead of becoming a story about women fighting with women Big Little Lies is about women struggling to be the things expected of them and to feel any sense of fulfillment. It’s about navigating contentious situations trying to find common ground but not give up who you are. It’s a feminist soap opera that is attempting to bring layers of depth audiences haven’t gotten before.