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