We throw around the term “guilty pleasure” a lot. In television, we throw it around so much that it seems to have lost much of its meaning. It’s a stamp that seems to apply to everything—and a label that TV producer Shonda Rhimes has built a media empire and a whole night of programming on. Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder, all these Shonda shows get labeled and promoted as guilty pleasures to be enjoyed with your girlfriends. But what does that really mean? When you picture someone enjoying their guilty pleasure of a TV show, who are they? Are they a young woman aged 18-49, sitting on their couch, throw pillows bunched up at their sides, iced wine in one hand and a pint of Talenti gelato in another? Most likely, yes. Ultimately, guilty pleasure has become synonymous with feminine. You will be hard pressed to find a drama led by a woman not described as a guilty pleasure, or as trashy but pulpy fun. Big Little Lies, the new HBO series that just finished its run this Sunday was initially billed that way.
This 7-part series—based off the wildly popular Australian Liane Moriarty novel of the same name—was promoted in a similar vein. About a single mom moving to a new town and tension her presence ensues, critics described it as a pulpy satire of the elite parenting class—the ones you’ll find with parenting blogs on Medium and PTA fundraisers that rival weddings in lavishness and scope. Set in a bay area, it’s a depiction of west-coast liberal elites and all the complicated social maneuvering that entails for parents and children alike. Also there’s a murder, because, you know, guilty pleasure. However, what initially feels like a cheap but pretty satire reveals itself to be much more layered and genuine that thought possible. With a majority female cast, Big Little Lies offers a referendum on how femininity in the television landscape is ghettoized and often reduced to superficial pop-entertainment, when in reality it’s a complex portrayal of negotiating your needs against your relationships, all within the watchful eye of the public. Make no mistake, Big Little Lies is prestige television precisely because of its feminine qualities.
COMPLEX FEMALE CHARACTERS THAT ARE EXCELLENTLY ACTED
Now, all of this would be a moot point if the show was not good. Luckily, due mostly to a handful of powerhouse performances it is very good indeed. Produced and starred in by Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, the two anchor a barrage of brilliantly portrayed characters that elevate an already enthralling, but at times limited source material. Witherspoon said part of the reason she pushed so hard to produce this series was because she didn’t want to be the smurfette on every set anymore. Too often there is a dearth of material out there for women, which usually means there’s only significant female character for actors to sink their teeth into. Not the case in Witherspoon’s production. Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern all craft their characters so richly that every scene gravitates towards them. Kidman has the difficult job of playing reserved and suffering but she reminds viewers of the caliber of actress she is, when she so ably renders Celeste’s quiet sense of conflict with every longing glance. Celeste is trapped is an abusive relationship that she tries to convince herself is equal parts passionate as it is volatile but just watching the same changes in her facial expression let you know she running out of contortion to make that view of reality work.
Woodley is also great as Jane Chapman; as the catalyst behind much of the story, she has the sometimes thankless job of being an audience surrogate into this elite and privileged world. Woodley brings a world weariness to Chapman and plays beyond her years (she is only 25). It’s tough to play an emotionally detached character liked Jane because it can so easily come off as stilted or robotic but Woodley never allows the character to get there. She always knows when to go for it and when to pull back. The same be said Laura Dern’s Renata Klein—she is constantly on a high-wire, juggling being a CEO with devoting enough time to be a proper parent to her daughter. We’ve seen that trope a thousand times, but Big Little Lies never makes an ultimate judgement on the work-mom versus stay-at-home debate, it allows Dern’s character to oscillate wildly between workhorse business tiger and emotionally open mother of a first grader. Renata switches back and forth so often that it causes her whiplash and Dern is more than up for the task of controlled chaos and rage. Even Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie, who has the least to do out of any billed actor, serves her role with a grace and consciousness serenity that affords her character status of zen stepmom.
REESE WITHERSPOON DOES HER BEST WORK
All of aforementioned actresses are various levels of good to great but none of this matters because Reese Witherspoon outshines them all with a performance that may be among the best of her career. As type-A stay-at-home mom Madeleine, Witherspoon brings her laser-focused manic rage that got her on the map with Election and aims that laser at every innocent bystander, be it other moms, her husband, her ex-husband, or even school drop-off attendants. A lot of actors can make the mistake of showing the seams in their work; too often you see the conscious “I’m acting!” decisions being made behind their eyes that takes you out of the moment. Witherspoon, on the other hand, shows the absolute fiery passion she has for the project and this character with every line reading. And it does not distract from the character, it elevates it. Big Little Lies does not shy away from ugly parts of Witherspoon’s character, it puts them right front and center and dares you to like her anyway. And you do because Witherspoon is that charming, and Madeleine is as fiercely loyal to her friends as she is petty and vicious to her enemies.
IT’S AN INDICTMENT OF THE GUILTY PLEASURE AS FEMININE NARRATIVE
I could talk about the acting from these women for a thousand more words because it is just that good. But Big Little Lies is more than a flashy showcase for powerhouse actors. It’s an indictment on the way we consume feminine narratives. Think back to the framing device of the whole series, an investigation of a murder. Interspersed through every episode is a Greek chorus of neighborhood moms, dads, and school administrators; the community. As the series progresses and as the lives of those women complicate and the pressure ramps up, the Greek chorus stays the same, picking apart every salacious detail of their lives. The device loses its potency later in the season as we just how real and complicated these characters so much to the point where it becomes a frustrating distraction. Big Little Lies does such a great job at empathy, there are no real villains here (save for one obvious exception of Perry). The best shows have great respect for their characters and seeing them reduced to gossipy stereotypes of cheating housewife, struggling single mom with a troubled kid, or even victim of abuse—it all starts to turn your stomach when at first it was a refreshing jolt into the series. The Greek chorus then becomes a mirror into how we consume these narratives, and what we want from them; Big Little Lies is smart enough than to give it to us. By the time we get to the ending, the murder seems almost irrelevant, a performance we know we have to get through to get to the end and that is a credit to the show’s craft of character. So much of “prestige” television trades on the idea of hyper drama; Breaking Bad was full of murder, same for Mr. Robot, The Sopranos, True Detective and early Homeland. All of these shows are considered the pinnacle of television’s narrative strength, but what makes them more substantive than Big Little Lies? Nothing. This is why it is so important how underplayed the actual murder is in the finale. It was never what the show was about. It was a sparkly thing that lured you into a show contemplating emotional trauma.
Big Little Lies did not need to kill someone to be substantive, it offered an alternative. Emotional resonance, even told through sprawling mansions and copious white wine, is just as important as anything else.
THE KIDS ARE MORE THAN ALRIGHT
Children are often the most difficult to get right on screen because they pull too far in one of two ways, they are either far too precocious—where it’s especially jarring to see a 6-year-old talk like 30-year-old lit majors—or they are way too cute so when they are expected to hit emotional notes you can practically see the lines being fed to them from behind a camera. The children of Monterey thankfully avoid both of these traps. So much of Big Little Lies is about how parents affect their children, often unexpectedly. Children are so much more emotionally receptive than we realize but also don’t have the tools or intelligence to properly interpret those emotions. Look at Chloe’s actions in episode 2 where she gets Ziggy and Amabella together and makes them kiss. She recognizes that the situation between the two makes the parents uncomfortable but misinterprets body language that she sees for her parents and appropriate for children. Chloe is seen as exceptionally precocious in the show, again in way that’s natural and not forced through dialogue, but this sort of situation reoccurs throughout. One of the most poignant lines come at the last episode, where during a stressful therapy session where Kidman’s character is recounting her abuse, she proclaims very vehemently that “the kids never knew, they never saw anything.” And what we see afterwards, learning that Max was the bully this whole time, really threw those words out the window. Ziggy knows his mother’s relationship with his father is more complicated than she lets on, Amabella hides her abuse from her parents because of the problems she sees it causes her mother. The child are smart and intuitive, but still innocent and they see so much more than their parents realize.
IT’S WONDERFULLY DIRECTED
One of the best things in BLL is that all of its greatest aspects happen on the backdrop of an absolutely beautiful landscape of Central California. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who worked with Witherspoon on Wild, offers a town bordered by a vast, crashing ocean, constantly shifting and wild and always in the background of almost every scene. It’s not beauty for beauty’s sake. The beach is constantly returned to at pivotal moments in the series, and is the final setting for the show. The same thing applies to vast array of lavish homes these characters live in. The show makes no effort to hide that these are people of considerable means, Renata’s home in particular often is shot like a castle on a cliff, especially in the way Renata lingers on sprawling deck—seemingly isolated in a empty glass tower of her own making. Compare that to Bonnie’s house, where the ceilings are low and there’s a bohemian homeliness that speaks to the inner serenity that Bonnie often exudes. These women’s emotional lives are manifested in the houses they occupy. It’s no coincidence that first thing Celeste’s therapist suggests is to get a home for herself. Along with the aesthetic panache, Vallée’s distinctive style of editing also ties in BLL’s efficiently. He seamlessly cuts chaotic scenes that recollect trauma within relatively peaceful scenes. The character’s’ past is constantly attacking its present. Taken as whole, the direction of this show rivals some of the best ever seen on television; its a smart and respectful exploration of trauma that doesn’t sacrifice any visual style to get its point across.