Before it premiered on HBO, the brilliant, shocking, groundbreaking Big Little Lies looked like a kind of classier, more serious Desperate Housewives or Scandal — rich white women, architecture porn and a splash of murder, with the added pedigree of an A-list Hollywood cast lead by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.
While that doesn't sound like the worst thing in the world, it's absolutely not what #BigLittleLies turned out to be — thematically, the seven-part #HBO series from Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée is much closer to Netflix's Jessica Jones. Both series use a basic genre setup (superhero series/murder mystery) to tell a more complex story about abuse and the roles society constructs for men and women.
But more so than Jessica Jones before it, Big Little Lies succeeds on double terms, not just a superb piece of art (expect it to pick up a few Emmys) but also the catalyst for a new level of conversation about its subject matter. This show has the potential to be a significant cultural landmark, and its genius is that all of us — male, female, kids, adults, abused, abuser — can genuinely learn something from it, even if the glass castles of Monterey feel a million miles away from our own lives.
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One of the main reasons Lies excels is that while the characters who populate Monterey and Otter Bay school, including our heroines, are for the most part shamelessly judgmental, neither Vallée's camera nor David E. Kelley's script passes judgement on them — their flaws, vast in the case of Madeline in particular (Reese Witherspoon), are more often than not the product of their environment. In other words, empathy is shown even when they don't show it, or even necessarily deserve it.
The women at school split into social fractions, drawing enemy lines in chalk on the playground even before their young children have any concept of what a clique is. In some ways Madeline, at least when facing off with her number one enemy Renata, is most guilty of this — purposely arranging a trip to Disney On Ice to keep a six-year-old girl's friends away from her birthday party, really? That's brazen.
And yet Witherspoon is so relentlessly charming that when she says she "tends to her grudges like little pets," you find yourself wondering whether to get rid of the goldfish and pick up a grudge or two of your own. The scene in which Madeline confesses her brief affair with Joseph to daughter Abigail (having just learned of Abigail's intent to auction off her virginity for charity) is a moment of brilliantly nuanced writing which completely captures the struggles of motherhood, marriage and youth, and the ways in which sexuality acts as a complex and omnipresent facet of life.
As the actress with potentially the hardest job here — Jane and Celeste have deep troubles, but Madeline's problems are largely self-inflicted and ostensibly superficial — Witherspoon does a brilliant job of persuading the audience to invest in her constantly-in-crisis emotional wellbeing.
That audience, by the way, is not just women. It's been noted that male critics, on the whole, have responded differently to Big Little Lies than their female counterparts. Men have described it as soap opera, or seemingly downplayed the idea that Celeste was a victim of domestic abuse, or rape, because she seemed at times to be sexually intoxicated by Perry's violence (even though it's made pretty clear as the series goes on that that's a coping mechanism of sorts, and regardless it certainly doesn't justify his behavior).
That split in critical reaction has created the impression that Big Little Lies somehow falls into the category of "TV for women," a notion which would be vaguely offensive if it wasn't so absurd. As somebody who is male and also not a complete idiot, my response to this show wasn't "Damn, these females are so alien! If only I could relate to their struggles!"
Big Little Lies doesn't shit on men — even though, yes, most of the male characters are spineless, like Ed, or swimming in laughable machismo, like Nathan, a man desperate to prove his masculinity by way of a fistfight at any given opportunity. (Seriously, what does Bonnie see in him? That's the ultimate mystery in Monterey.)
But it does seem to posit a thought-provoking thesis, the idea that society maintains a patriarchal status quo by pitting women against one another. The Otter Bay moms are Team Renata or Team Madeline, and each hates the other. School gate gossip is the ultimate social currency in a place where actual currency is earned largely by men.
Ultimately, writer Kelley (who gets inside the Monterey women's heads to a much stronger degree than the book's female author, Liane Moriarty) and director Jean-Marc Vallee do a superb job of capturing women, because they recognize that women aren't fundamentally different from men — they're just pushed into certain boxes by society. And, by virtue of being smart and empathetic, they can overcome that, just as these women did in the finale.
So, no, it's not a TV series designed for women, even if it is about women. If that misconception can be seen through, if those male critics who dismiss it as soap opera simply because it has a female lead cast looked a little deeper, we might look back on Big Little Lies in five years as a cultural touchstone — as possibly the best portrayal of an abusive relationship ever seen on television, as something which allows women to be flawed without calling for their heads.
Like the ocean that operates as an eerily dreamy backdrop to the dramas of these characters, life keeps on going, at turns calm and rocked by waves, and ultimately we could all learn something about men and women, about friendship, about parents and children — about life — from Big Little Lies.
That's the big little truth.
Click here for a more in-depth, spoiler-heavy discussion of the killer finale.