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‘Big Little Lies’ Tells Uncomfortable Truths

HBO’s extra-starry miniseries is a pointed satire of West Coast wealth

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

Lean In was just the tip of the iceberg. Sheryl Sandberg’s hashtag-able tome took corporate feminism viral in 2013, but the anxieties it sought to alleviate — Is it a betrayal of feminism to put all those fancy degrees toward playdate planning and PTA meetings? Is it a betrayal of your kids to leave them behind every day when you head into the office? — were the culmination of a decade of hand-wringing. Books like Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift, Leslie Morgan Steiner’s Mommy Wars, and most iconically, Lisa Belkin’s “The Opt-Out Revolution” were all testaments to what happens when the drive that propelled post-second-wave career women through so many glass ceilings turns inward. These books and magazine articles and online support groups ask emotional, personal questions couched inside broader social ones, and they inspire defensiveness to match. Or, as Reese Witherspoon’s Maddie Mackenzie puts it to a new friend in the premiere of Big Little Lies, “I’m happy to welcome another full-time mom to the ranks. Sometimes I think it’s us against them: all the career mommies, with all their board meetings that are so important. Google this, Yahoo that. Please.”

Big Little Lies is at its best when it focuses on dichotomies like these, generated by the narcissism of small differences between stupendously rich white people. The HBO miniseries, written by procedural don David E. Kelley and directed by recent Oscar baiter Jean-Marc Vallée, trades the suburban Sydney of the Liane Moriarty novel it’s based on for the Bay Area exurb of Monterey. The change in locale introduces a particularly American, and particularly Californian, set of contrasts: between the guilty rich and the slightly less (but still guilty) rich, between new money and the authenticity it fetishizes. Ocean vistas and glass-paneled homes provide more than stunning scenery for a marquee cast to feast on. They set the scene for a canny, clever dissection of a social landscape. And it’s dead on: I grew up in a town like Monterey. My mom had a copy of Mommy Wars on her nightstand; I went to a mostly white public high school funded by the property taxes on beachfront teardown jobs, and every morning on the way to class I drove past a jaw-dropping view just like the one the credits sequence shows as part of the liars’ daily commute. Bitchy and impeccably furnished, Big Little Lies may be an exaggeration — but only a slight one.

In theory, Big Little Lies is a murder mystery. Someone has died at a school fundraiser, though the show declines to reveal who that person is. This starts as a means of generating suspense, but as the seven episodes continue and Kelley steadily refuses to disclose any more details, death fades into the background. A dead body isn’t necessary to hold our focus. Monterey’s petty infighting does that just fine. The battle lines are drawn before there’s even a battle to be had. Maddie, full-time mom, hates Renata Klein (Laura Dern), career mom. Both women feel insecure about their life choices, and both channel that insecurity in equally ferocious fashion: Maddie into social meddling and community theater, Renata into humblebragging and overprotectiveness. They don’t need an excuse to feud — each already pushes the other’s buttons — but an excuse they get in newcomer Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a single mother who moves to Monterey for its excellent schools.

An accusation against Jane’s son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), finally sparks the war between Maddie and Renata, prompting the former to leap to his defense and the latter to mount a Lululemon’d crusade. This makes Jane a disruptive presence on Big Little Lies, but she’s also a grounding one. A part-time bookkeeper who sleeps on a pull-out couch so Ziggy can have the bedroom, Jane is the only character for whom “money struggles” means something more pressing than “do I join the board of PayPal or Uber?” Over time, though, Jane and Ziggy’s appearance exposes the latent hypocrisies in Monterey, a liberal enclave that prides itself on a progressiveness that’s never been challenged. Conformity undergirds any McMansion-populated hamlet; you’ve seen Stepford Wives. But the tension between patchouli-scented values and capitalist ones? That’s a problem best explored out West.

There’s a reason Renata and her fellow parents are so quick to close ranks. Ziggy isn’t just a newcomer, but an outsider. His mother doesn’t choose to work; she has to. She doesn’t drive an SUV; she drives an outdated Prius. The parents and teachers wouldn’t say so, but they seem offended that a freeloader has dared to encroach on their carefully crafted utopia. After all, the ultimate luxury of leaving the city isn’t that you’ve escaped financial hardship. It’s that you don’t have to witness it, an unspoken freedom that Jane Chapman ruins with her very presence. And so the longtime residents are suspicious, questioning her motives for moving in a way they never would if she were wealthy, married, or preferably both. The concern-trolling citizens are right that there’s more to Jane than meets the eye, but that doesn’t make their prejudice any less glaring. (Monterey can abide the look of eccentricity in lieu of its substance, as represented by Zoë Kravitz’s Zen-spouting hippie yoga teacher. This is the kind of free spirit the town can live with: safely ensconced in consumerism, commodified and available for purchase at 30 bucks a class.)

Big Little Lies captures a bohemia at a crossroads, the sleepy inclusiveness of a beach town swallowed by the money that’s steamrolled in to envelop it. There are mothers who gave up their own careers so they could raise daughters to have more high-powered ones — Maddie’s youngest, Chloe (Darby Camp), confidently declares she’s going to run her own fashion label someday — and a mayor who takes pride in his town’s tolerance until a major donor objects to a production of Avenue Q. This show is the rare social portrait that’s as fun to think about as it is to look at, and you’ll spend a lot of time parsing the minutiae of these women’s home décor as golden-hour sunlight spills over kitchens worth more than most houses.

Big Little Lies makes a point of nailing the real-life details — the faux-laid-back affectations and balls-to-the-wall birthday parties of a thousand coastal towns. But the show is also after bigger game. Big Little Lies skewers a social class on the knives they sharpened themselves. Their mannerisms are honed with money that turns out to magnify problems instead of dispelling them. All those floor-to-ceiling windows just make it easier for us to peek inside.

Disclaimer: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.