HBO’s limited series “Big Little Lies” is the latest show everyone can’t stop talking about and with its A-list cast and Jean-Marc Vallée in the director’s chair, it’s not hard to see why. The show offers us not one but four leading ladies, all of which are most frequently found on the big screen.
Madeline (played by Reese Witherspoon, Jane (Shailene Woodley), Renata (Laura Dern), and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) are all mothers to first-grade students at a private school in the wealthy city of Montery, California. The series’ first episode hits the ground running, revealing there has been a murder at the school’s annual trivia night fundraiser. Interrogation room interviews with fellow parents try to bridge information together but it is clear that biases exist and allies have been formed, leaving every recollection to seem untrustworthy.
Blogs have been running with the idea that “Big Little Lies” is just a dramatic portrayal of the popular “Real Housewives” reality shows. The sea-side mansions, the wealthy, beautiful women who are never seen without a wine glass nearby, the daily catch-ups at the cute cafe while the kids are at school. It can all seem a bit shallow on its surface — a show based on the drama between white affluent women doesn’t seem like the type of story to harness real depth, but to ride the show off based on its exterior would be wrong.
One of the shows main plot-lines is the difficult topic of domestic violence. Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgard, is the abusive husband of Celeste, a former lawyer whose life is described as perfect so many times throughout the series’ you knew something had to be up. The show tackles the topic in a way that is not frequently explored. There are layers to the abusive relationship between Celeste and Perry; represented as a shade of gray opposed to a clear-cut black and white. In an interview with Vulture, director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club”) said the following on his portrayal of the relationship:
“The intention was to see how complex it is: to show how people lie about it, what it feels to go through it, and how painful it can be for the woman, who is the victim in this case. But [writer David E. Kelley] and I and all of our partners thought, Well, what if we try to care for this guy too? He is the perpetrator of the violence, but he is aware of it and sincerely wants to get rid of his demons. That’s why I think you wonder and go, My God, I see. I see. There’s a little spark of hope here and there. I wanted to try to touch people’s hearts.”This deep exploration of the character’s motives, their emotions and reactions, is what makes “Big Little Lies” work.
It is learned that the character of Jane had been a victim of sexual assault which brought her son Ziggy, into the world. Through the series, Jane struggles with Ziggy as he repeatedly asks about his father. It’s hard to watch as an outsider, seeing the pain that Jane feels when she’s forced to mention her abuser but also seeing the frustrations of a boy just wanting to know who his father is.
Again, Jean-Marc Vallée tackles the subject in a way to not make Jane seem like a one-dimensional character, unable to feel more than one emotion, as so frequently visited by TV shows and movies today. “I still hope that whoever he is is a nice guy… that, like, maybe that night was just a bad misunderstanding? Or a night gone wrong. Or he had a bad day,” says Jane, speaking of her abuser.
“Big Little Lies” doesn’t just lift the curtain into the world of four moms from Montery, California – it tears it down. A handful of clichés aside, the show portrays women in a more truthful and realistic way than other shows dare to explore. It’s not the victim of abuse who cries out for help, it’s the wife that sticks up for her abusive husband in therapy and wears long sweaters to cover her bruises. It’s not the rape victim who only seeks revenge, it’s the mother who hopes the father of her child is a good man. The show is smart, beautifully crafted, and is the fresh breath of air we all needed. Check out the trailer for Big Little Lies below and be sure to binge watch on HBO or hbogo.com.