Big Little Lies is many things, but realistic is not one of them. Not that it’s an all-out fantasy, but the show, with its manicured mothers and perfect prep school and wow-I-should’ve-chosen-a-different-career mansions, doesn’t quite come off as true to life. Which is fine! It’s House of Cards on quaaludes. It’s The O.C. for the P.T.A. Big Little Lies is fun, but nothing about it is realistic.
Except for one thing: the beach. The beach in Big Little Lies sucks, because the beach in Monterey, California — where the show is set (the 2014 Liane Moriarty novel it’s based on is set in Australia) — sucks.
Take your eyes off the 39-year-olds sexing each other up. Get a look at the beach — would you like to go swimming? No. You’d get hypothermia.
The shoreline plays a big role in Big Little Lies: It’s the site of both friendly jogs and flashbacks to past trauma, as well as where characters go to gossip and plot. The beach also seems to have a part in the heavily foreshadowed crime, the one Monterey’s well-heeled residents have been giving statements about to the police for half a season now. It stews ominously under Big Sur’s iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, looking damp, chilly, and generally inhospitable to human life.
Don’t get me wrong: The beach in Monterey is beautiful. It’s a rugged stretch of cliffs, manzanita, and impossible pines. There are otters and cormorants and little kit foxes. It looks like this:
It does not look like this:
That’s Malibu, California, 300 hundred miles south of Monterey. Malibu is a place for picnics and sunburns and rainbow umbrellas and Orlando Bloom playing cornhole — basically, it is a place for long days at the beach, because it is, more often than not, pleasant, sunny, and warm there. I bring up Malibu because it’s the real-life setting of Reese Witherspoon’s character’s home.
I do not know if Witherspoon shot all her en casa scenes on-site in Malibu, and the scenes where she strolls outside to stare at the ocean just happened to be filmed on unusually inclement Malibu days. It’s equally possible that instead, in an attempt to make Malibu — with its telltale Southern California scrub on the hills in the background — seem a bit more like Monterey, director Jean-Marc Vallée added some effects on a soundstage. Either way, here’s what happens whenever Witherspoon wanders outside:
It’s perfect. Witherspoon’s character is a micromanager with busybody tendencies; she is polished, poised, and fond of brushing complications under the nearest rug. But this is what would happen if she stepped out onto the beach in Monterey: She would get blasted in the face with wind and salt spray, and her expensive, lovely blowout would get ruined. Would it be scenic? Absolutely. Would it be warm or placid or anything else we associate with movie stars on beaches? Nope.
Monterey’s beach is a beach where you need a jacket. That doesn’t mean it’s bad — plenty of perfectly nice places require jackets, like England and movie theaters — it’s just demonstrably different, in appearance and mood, than the made-for-vacation shorelines where most of this show is filmed. This is Big Little Lies’ singular realism: the wild, picturesque, decidedly unpolished seaside of Monterey.
Although, if we’re nit-picking — it could use some more fog.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the setting of Liane Moriarty’s novel. It’s set in Australia, not California.