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Big Little Lessons

‘Big Little Lies’ has plenty to teach the rest of television

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

For seven shining weeks, HBO’s Big Little Lies was a bona fide, water-cooler-mobbing, Peak TV–vanquishing Event Series. The anecdotal evidence was overwhelming, then corroborated by Metacritic and Nielsen alike: Prior to the finale, the show was pulling in an average of 7 million viewers a week across platforms. All spring long, the same friends I usually beg to take a chance on The Leftovers were coming to me with their unsolicited thoughts on the goings-on in David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée’s fantasy Monterey, floating theories about who got got at the elementary school fundraiser or which liar they were IRL. And after successfully capturing the zeitgeist, this show didn’t have to give us a satisfying payoff, but a satisfying payoff is exactly what we got.

Now that we’ve taken a few days to process the finale, we can safely turn our attentions to how to rebottle this lightning. Having a marquee cast (Witherspoon! Woodley! Kidman! Kravitz!) is only the tip of the iceberg. In subject and style, Big Little Lies is a significant enough departure from what we conventionally understand as quality television that it has plenty of lessons to impart for future endeavors. Let’s break them down:

Movie Stars Are Still a Draw — Just Not at the Movies

It’s now accepted wisdom that brands and buzz, rather than individual actors, fill seats at the multiplex. An unknown like Daniel Kaluuya can lead a movie to nine figures in less than a month; a starring vehicle by and for Ben Affleck can sink without so much as a ripple. But the movie star isn’t exactly dead. She’s just switched media.

Big Little Lies isn’t the first to do this: True Detective kick-started the McConaissance, Susan Sarandon currently leads Feud, and 30 Rock managed to book Julianne Moore and Matt Damon as recurring love interests. But the sheer mass and variety of Big Little Lies’ star power is unprecedented, combining two unquestionable A-listers (Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman) with a respected veteran (Laura Dern), a teen mainstay transitioning into a grown-up career (Shailene Woodley), and an It Girl (Zoë Kravitz). Their combined payroll could likely purchase at least a couple of their characters’ jaw-dropping estates, but the ratings indicate HBO’s investment is paying off.

A single human being, even Reese Witherspoon, can no longer match the bankability of a collective franchise like The Fast and the Furious at the cinema. She can, however, easily blow the latest network time-travel romp out of the water, especially when she assembles a similarly starry group of peers. Nicole Kidman, for one, seems to have taken that lesson to heart — she’ll be costarring in Top of the Lake: China Girl later this year opposite Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline Christie.

Cater to Grown Women

The stars of Big Little Lies have been vocal about the series’ exceptionalism compared with their film careers. Witherspoon has positioned the project as an antidote to “Smurfette Syndrome,” where she’s been the only woman on set; Nicole Kidman has remarked on how rare it is to find not one, not two, but five substantive female roles in the same script. That these shifts coincided with both stars’ television debuts is no accident. ABC’s Shondaland made Miranda Bailey America’s tough-love boss and lifted Viola Davis to an Emmy; over on FX, Ryan Murphy has made his life’s work out of crafting showcases for the likes of Angela Bassett and Jessica Lange.

The employment opportunities of already rich and famous celebrities is admittedly of limited concern to the hoi polloi. Or at least it would be, except that hiring middle-aged women also means speaking directly to their underserved, noncelebrity counterparts. Hollywood’s refusal to acknowledge that women continue to exist when they’re no longer 25 and single means refusing to satisfy a largely untapped audience’s wish to see themselves represented. BLL’s ratings suggest that TV is picking up the audience that studio filmmaking has voluntarily surrendered. Actresses aren’t the only ones decamping for the small screen. Their fans are, too.

Genre Isn’t a Boys’ Club, and Neither Is Prestige

One of the many reasons that dismissals of Big Little Lies as a soap opera or chick lit rang so tone deaf is that they were half-right. This show had multiple scenes of a character clutching a wine glass while gazing soulfully into the sunset. But a basis in a previously dismissed or marginalized genre isn’t a knock against any given show — it’s the entire story of modern prestige TV.

The Sopranos was a riff on rough-and-tough mob stories. Game of Thrones upgraded swords and sorcery for the liberal arts set. True Detective is named after a long-running pulp magazine. Half the fun of contemporary television is in eking great art out of what conventional wisdom and taste had once written off as worthless trash. Big Little Lies replicated the process with a different set of tropes: wealth, bitchy one-liners, domestic struggles, and wine. So much wine.

The difference, of course, is that Big Little Lies’ predecessors were working with source material that traditionally attracted a heavily male audience, a leg up that put them significantly closer to mainstream critical acceptance than stories about unfulfilled housewives. The participation of Witherspoon and her collaborators helped Big Little Lies make it to air, giving it the chance to prove that women-marketed genre fiction could attract just as many plaudits and viewers as its more testosterone-laden peers. (The show started to outpace The Night Of in the ratings a little more than halfway through its run.) Appointment television is no longer the man’s world it once was — Jill Soloway has made sure of that — but Big Little Lies makes the most forceful case yet that we write off women’s stories at our own risk.

There’s No Such Thing As Unrelatable

Among Big Little Lies’ many accomplishments is its successful argument that no social scene is too rarefied and no character too privileged to support a deep dive. Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright faced an objectively terrifying threat to her and her children’s well-being, but both Witherspoon and Dern each crafted convincing pain out of far lower stakes. There’s a deep woundedness to Maddie’s meddling projection or Renata Klein’s schoolyard crusading that all the tech money in the world can’t fix. Just because we’d be lucky to have these people’s anxieties doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Besides, Big Little Lies never participated in the most annoying trend in televisual affluence: the unstated assumption that a Sherman Oaks five-bedroom is the norm, and that the cast of, say, Modern Family makes for a representative study of American socioeconomics. Big Little Lies is well aware that Renata’s mansion is a goddamn mansion, and Jean-Marc Vallée shoots it accordingly. This is a show that indulged (and challenged) our voyeurism rather than pretending we had no reason to pry.

… and There’s No Shame in Eye Candy

Big Little Lies was well aware of the escapism it provided, and it wasn’t ashamed to provide it. That freed the producers to spend their money where it counted: After payroll and possibly Reese Witherspoon’s wine rider, there’s no doubt that the biggest line item in the budget was for locations. A modernist palace in Monterey! A beach house in Malibu! Immaculately curated decor for the Craftsman bungalow–turned–therapist office! Vallée’s trademark montages and rapid editing certainly helped buck TV’s rep for visual monotony, but he was also working from an especially telegenic canvas. Big Little Lies shows there’s more than one way to light a kitchen.

Put the “Limited” in “Limited Series”

This is a personal pet peeve, but Vallée seems to agree: The fact that miniseries end is intrinsic to their appeal, and while our demands for more may be flattering, they’re also counterproductive. Big Little Lies was partly a whodunnit, and now we know who did it, and why, and what she wore to the beach once she was safely exonerated by her sisters in school fundraising. What more is there to explore?

“To do a Season 2, I’m not for it. Let’s move on and do something else!” Vallée told The Hollywood Reporter. Big Little Lies Two? Nah. The end is for the audience to talk about. Imagine what you want to imagine and that’s it. We won’t give you a Season 2 because it’s so good like this. Why spoil it?” Amen. Godspeed to everyone involved in their future endeavors. For the rest of us, it’s time to get comfortable with closure, plus a little ambiguity. (I, for one, am fine assuming that Ed and Maddie went about their repressed WASP lives without ever actually discussing the affair. Soulful karaoke is the closest those two will ever get to couples therapy.) I have faith in us all, especially Reese Witherspoon.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.