Big Little Lies (2017)

Written by: David E. Kelley. Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Opening_Title_CardI’m going to start this piece with a spoiler alert. I’m not going to spoil anything specific, but it’s hard to comment on the nature of Big Little Lies without dampening its plot arc. The 7-episode miniseries is set in Monterey California and tells a women-centric story of four families in the community. The community can broadly be described as wealthy, though the degree to which this description fits all the characters is unclear. One character, young single mother Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is presumably an exception, though not enough so for it to explicitly affect the plot line.


Jane is part of a friend group of mothers including Madeleine Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) united by their kids’ attendance of the same school, and by their refusal to participate in the denunciation of Jane’s six-year-old son Ziggy (Iain Armitage). All this information is introduced early along with Madeleine’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper), his hippyish new wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), Madeleine’s soft-spoken new husband Ed (Adam Scott) and Celeste’s tempermental husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). The cast is completed by quasi-antagonist Renata Klein (Laura Dern), and Madeline’s daughers Abigal (Kathryn Newton) and Chloe (Darby Camp).


The first episode also introduces a series of unnamed characters. The show breaks to footage of them addressing the camera as if they are either testifying before a detective or appearing on a reality show. While the first episode deals with marital grumblings and the question of whether one six-year-old was aggressive towards another or not, these interviews make clear that the show will get darker.

These interviews, it can be said, add some tonal richness to the show. There’s something frustrating about them, however. While I would not call Big Little Lies a slow-paced show, it’s not exactly full of sharp curves in narrative either. In Annihilation, every time the action is broken to show Natalie Portman’s character giving testimony, the testimony pushes the plot forward and is used to punctuate dramatic shifts in the film’s story line. This is what I expected after each provocative statement from an interviewee in Big Little Lies, but I eventually realized I was expecting too much. Perhaps the interviews would seem more meaningful if I re-watched the show. Perhaps they will get new meaning when the second season comes out. Perhaps, but the only impression I was left with is that the show’s writers wanted to say things about their characters that didn’t neatly fit into the narrative. They thus used the interviews to force some of those ideas onto the screen.


Then again, this may also be a case where a flaw is a merit. Big Little Lies is not a mystery and yet it sets itself up as one. This anti-climatism is consistent with the show’s political message: sometimes we do not see the obvious. Sometimes unpleasant and even un-nuanced observations are paths to important truths.


I cannot say more on that matter without spoiling the series. What I can say is that the show’s artistic employment of anti-climacticism goes beyond this ultimate plot line. Big Little Lies doesn’t quite dabble, perhaps it flirst, with magical realism. It tells the stories surrounding a 6-year-old boy named after Ziggy Stardust with an unknown father. He lives by the beauteous, mysterious  pacific ocean. He could be some magical spirit, a chosen one. But he isn’t. Ziggy is just a little boy with a cool name: there’s nothing magical about him.


Another characteristic of Big Little Lies’ anti-climacticism is its realistic portrayal of conflict. While the show ultimately becomes dramatic, it also introduces a number of other points of tension that are resolved calmly or simply peter out: much like real world dramas. Take the example of the show’s depiction of its central character, Madaeline. Often stories follow the formula of having a “straight-man” protagonist who undergoes serious tribulations, while accompanied by silly sidekicks. Madeline breaks this convention. She is the most animated of her three-friends: a gung-ho sidekick, not a straight-woman. Furthermore, her personal dramas arethe least consequential within her friend group. Nonetheless, she is the protagonist. In the real world, we are all the protagonists of “the story.” This does not mean, however, we are all at the center of the world’s adventures. Many of us thus exist as protagonists with non-dramatic life stories: almost an oxymoronic way of being, and one that Madeline perfectly embodies.


Big Little Lies is a solid show. While not exactly “subtle,” the dialogue is well written and the diverse cast of personalities are easy to differentiate and take interest in. Nonetheless, unless you’ve done some research in advance, it may not be the show you think it is. And that may be because its exactly the show you think it is. This contradiction may not be Big Little Lies’ strongest selling point, but it’s certainly it’s most memorable characteristic.


Genius (2017) (Mini-Series)

MV5BMTkyOTcwMjY1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODg5MzUwMjI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Developed by: Noah Pink and Ken Biller 

When I picture Albert Einstein I think of the photograph of him with his tongue stuck out; and I hear him saying that imagination is as important as science. On other occasions, when I hear the phrase “Einstein” I don’t think of a man at all—I just hear a synonym for genius. National Geographic’s recently completed mini-series, Genius,* bridges these two understandings of Einstein, providing audiences with an introduction to who he was, and how he fits into history.


Biopics (or bio-miniseries’) are often not suited for artistic subtlety. They take a real life, a life surely filled with mundanity, and try to condense it down to its triumphs and scandals. Genius is no exception, as it tell the tale of a dynamic 76 year-long life in 10 episodes—episodes featuring multiple suicides, two world wars, the invention of two horrible weapons, and numerous cameos by historical figures (some of which, though entertaining, feel quite forced), in addition to unending family turmoil.


One questionable decision the creators of Genius made was to cast different actors as young (Johnny Flynn) and old (Geoffrey Rush) Einstein. Rush abruptly takes over the role when Einstein is in his 40s, meaning that Einstein suddenly goes from looking like a child amongst his Prussian Academy of Sciences peers to looking a bit older than academy leader Max Planck.


But while this casting choice was not seamless, its non-seamlessness is so obvious that I am inclined to forgive it. If anything the choice to cast two Einsteins should be appreciated as a clever artistic strategy. When one lives with a person, it can be hard to notice changes in their appearance or personality. Such changes become noticeable, however, if one only sees a person occasionally. By making “young Einstein” and “old Einstein”  two different roles, Genius insures that we are not de-sensitized to developments in Einstein’s persona (as if we were living with him daily), but rather can see those developments as easily as we can tell the difference between Flynn and Rush.


Much of Flynn’s story line details the struggles of Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley). Einstein fell for Maric while they were students together, with the two coming to see themselves as part a romantic and academically egalitarian relationship. As circumstances largely beyond Einstein and Maric’s control prevent Maric from pursuing her own physics career, Einstein grows to resent his wife and becomes increasingly misogynistic.


Rush meanwhile plays Einstein after his separation with Maric. Flynn’s Einstein is a realistic character, one whose boyish ambition and obliviousness leads him to make both brilliant and horrible decisions. Rush’s (who is 32 years Flynn’s senior) entrance marks a complete break with Flynn’s boyishness, and an abrupt end to the character’s development. Rush is Einstein as the public knows him—a Dumbledoresque figure: elderly, idealist, and eager to teach to the young and believe in humanity.


Together Flynn and Rush show us multiple ways we can enjoy and learn from history. Rush gives us the comfort of a familiar persona and shows us how we can love him more. Rush’s Einstein emphasizes that math and science are to be enjoyed, and should be enjoyed by all, challenging the stereotype of the cold scientist who arrogantly looks down upon society. He also challenges the notion that scientists should be apolitical, and separate from the world of social justice by speaking out on various causes, making him a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s.


Flynn’s Einstein, however, exposes the downside of lionizing historical giants. Historical icons are disproportionately white and male, meaning their fame can at least partially be attributed to injustice. Flynn’s storyline suggests, for instance, that despite collaborating with Maric, Einstein did not ultimately credit her on their joint papers (perhaps for fear of how society would read it, or perhaps because of his own dismissiveness of her contributions).


Genius is able to accomplish the important objective of criticizing Einstein and promoting the memory of Maric, while still allowing viewers to celebrate the ultimate good (humanitarian and scientific) that came from Einstein’s life. This complex portrayal of Einstein is the result of the distinct contributions of Flynn and Rush. Flynn’s 3D portrayal of Einstein allows us to both see Einstein’s flaws and understand the social conditions that created them. Rush’s more caricatured (though still wonderfully acted) portrayal allows viewers to see what Einstein became, despite the errors of his formative years, and what we can admire about him.

Genius may not be considered revolutionary or artistic television (a possibility that the Einstein story could allow for, given Einstein’s imaginative approaches to solving and explaining physics problems), but it is captivating and educational. Those who wish to know more about the biography of a scientist: what he lived through, how he saw the world, and, to a limited degree, what he discovered, should absolutely consider giving the series a try.

*Genius will have another season, but focus on a different historical figure