And how it’s set a new benchmark for Prestige TV.
I’m finding that writing about Big Little Lies is extraordinarily difficult, because an itemization of its merits as a piece of craft are inevitably going to sound like backhanded compliments, and I would want all of those merits to be taken very seriously. This itemization would also involve several uses of negatives as qualifiers, and that sets the wrong tone; if something “isn’t [conditionally positive quality],” isn’t that bad? Then there’s the “is it a movie or is it a TV show?” thing, which is becoming more of a thing, and proportionally pissing me off ever more with each recurrence, because (he said, betraying the hippie-dippiness of his arts and critical philosophy education) it’s all cinema, man. In the absence of any other opening gambit, let’s err on the side of being reductive: it’s good. It’s very, very good.
One of the major ways Big Little Lies arrives at this place is by being, in the most complimentary sense possible, the Platonic ideal of mid 2010s Prestige TV. It is just enough of a genre piece – the murder mystery – to have a built-in element generating suspense independent of other elements. It takes a clever enough spin on the established genre – the mystery here is who was murdered rather than who committed the murder – to avoid most slippery slopes (or broken top steps) leading to the pitfalls of cliche. The coup de grace, though, for which veteran TV writer David E. Kelley (working from the popular novel by Liane Moriarty) and director Jean-Marc Vallee in equal measures deserve credit, is in the coy downplaying of the genre angle in favor of the human drama in the piece, or in more practical terms, showcasing the performances.
That is, not to bury the lede, Big Little Lies’ biggest strength and raison d’etre, as an actors’ showcase. And, to be clear, not just any kind of acting showcase, but one for stars. There is a considerable, although not complete, overlap in the diagram of great actors and great stars. Not all great actors are great stars, and vice versa, and consistency is another question entirely. Acting is a deeply misunderstood art that everyone thinks they understand, and so blanket assertions that so-and-so is great are countered by “So-and-so? *scoff* You’re crazy!” So I’m not going to take that route. Instead, let me describe for you a short beat in which Nicole Kidman, as hot-shot attorney turned stay at home mom Celeste, looks at Alexander Skarsgaard, her blindingly handsome, increasingly abusive husband Perry, from across a room. The angle on Kidman’s face is a medium close-up, her head and shoulders in frame, her face angled slightly but essentially looking directly into camera. There are dozens of pages of inner monologue about the contradictions of her marriage, on her face, that register all within a manner of seconds. She blinks once, her eyelashes dipping to her cheek. Her face is still radiating the inner doubt. She blinks again. The inner turmoil is either gone, or, more disconcertingly, buried even deeper.
That’s how the fuck you do the thing. That’s just . . . goddamn . . .
And that’s just one moment. Big Little Lies is running over with them. Every character in it, down to bit parts, feels like a fully rounded person, and its fictional (apparently, very fictional) Monterey is a complete, fully dimensional world. (In fact, while hoping to outlast a particularly nasty case of writer’s block by pure attrition earlier, which is to say, playing Mass Effect: Andromeda, the thought occurred to me that I would play a Big Little Lies video game for months on end; this column was almost about that hypothetical game, if you need extra blessings to count.) It invites immersion, to have the audience on first name basis with its principal characters by the story’s close. It succeeds so well in this that, when the oft-nearly-forgotten murder mystery is resolved, the mildly creepy feeling “well, at least the right person died” sets in. And then is washed away, on a literal beach.
Big Little Lies, to address the caveats hinted at earlier, is not perfect. The poetic license taken with its setting, which is probably not that big a deal unless you’re from the exact place, is one thing. The fact that we get all kinds of time with and glimpses into the characters played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and even Laura Dern’s smaller role, but so comparatively little of Zoe Kravitz’s, feels like a missed opportunity. It’s nearly the only one, though. The rest of the show (Film? Miniseries? Fuck it) is as good as this kind of thing gets.
I haven’t even touched on the editing, which isn’t all that radical (there’s another one of those caveats I didn’t want to lead with) in real terms but is the kind of garnish that sets Big Little Lies apart from other Prestige TV, which has mastered sheen but isn’t always as deft rhythmically. Vallee and editing quartet David Berman, Maxime Lahaie, Sylvain Lebel, and Jim Vega keep Big Little Lies dancing to a legato beat, with drum fills of flashback, dream fragment, and fantasized catharsis. It’s stylish without being ostentatious, which is a perfect touch for its medium.
And that medium is Prestige TV, often mocked for bellowing its intent and then delivering the goods with a clattering of broken plates, or hewing too close to a bland template of guaranteed success. Big Little Lies should be the form’s new aspirational goal. It’s at least trying to address its shaky areas, and while incremental change may not be the most popular thing these days, it’s better than no change at all. And that’s a good place to leave Big Little Lies, for now, on its beloved beach, warmed by the light of its stars, an ocean of promise to the west. The future. May it be bright.
Related Topics: HBO