In preparation for the annual year-end frenzy, I keep a running list of scripted programs that excite and intrigue me. The tally started on January 6, with the release of Netflix’s excellent family sitcom One Day at a Time; in the first week of December, I’m still adding to it. (Black Mirror! The Crown! The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel!) The current total comes in at four dozen entries, not counting a half-dozen obvious snubs I just caught on a cursory reread (sorry, Jane the Virgin) or, full disclosure, any shows that might still be released. Consuming and writing about TV is literally what I do for a living and I can barely keep up, let alone devise some broad, state-of-the-union generalizations to put a bow on the free-for-all that is Peak TV. What would be the point? The appeal of our modern TV era is that there’s something wildly specific for everyone. There’s never been a better time to be a crime fiction aficionado with a living room set (or a romance junkie, or a follower of once-obscure comedians), or less incentive to look up and try to wrap one’s head around all the other options.
As crowded as TV’s present may be, 2017 also offered some crystal-clear insights into its future. Hollywood loves nothing more than a model to follow, and so today’s successes become tomorrow’s wave of copycats. Ryan Murphy and Charlie Brooker made seasons—or even episodes—the new series; Empire and Shondaland made executives pay attention to representation on TV; Making a Murderer and The Jinx made true crime the next great gold mine, with everything from The People v. O.J. Simpson to American Vandal following in their footsteps. Hollywood is always in search of a blueprint, but in a marketplace as oversaturated as television is, that blueprint starts to look like a life raft.
This year’s life raft floats somewhere off the coast of Monterey, surrounded by telegenic fog and fueled by catty one-liners. The people on board are beautiful, rich, and sheathed in an armor-like uniform of head-to-toe Lululemon. They are also, to a woman, very, very famous.
Big Little Lies did not invent the practice of luring film actors and directors to the small screen. Long before Matthew McConaughey and Cary Fukunaga teamed up for the first season of True Detective, the prestige miniseries was already a longstanding tradition at HBO, which would broadcast Big Little Lies just three years later. Recently, I revisited Todd Haynes’s excellent Mildred Pierce adaptation from 2011, starring Kate Winslet; before The King’s Speech, Oscar-bait impresario Tom Hooper helmed John Adams, with Paul Giamatti.
What Big Little Lies can be credited with, however, is breaking any previous record for Most Star Power in a Given TV Project by an order of magnitude. Based on the 2014 novel by Australian writer Liane Moriarty and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies wasn’t a solo Reese Witherspoon vehicle, though it may have appeared so for the first half of the limited series’ seven-episode run. It wasn’t a Nicole Kidman vehicle either, though it may have appeared so for the back half. The show wasn’t even a two-hander: The supporting cast was rounded out by Shailene Woodley, already the anchor of a film franchise in her own right; Laura Dern, a legend who would round out the year by resuming her post as David Lynch’s muse; and Zoë Kravitz, an It Girl seemingly born to play the effortlessly chilled-out yoga teacher to Reese’s high-strung micromanager.
Television is colloquially known as a writer’s medium. The conventional wisdom goes that with so much story to generate in such a compressed time frame, the voices responsible for conceiving and structuring a show’s plot are the most significant creative forces behind any end product. Big Little Lies did have a marquee writer in David E. Kelley, the procedural don behind Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, but it was a showcase for actors first, big names whose participation grabbed viewers’ attention and, crucially, held it once they tuned in. “Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in your living room” is a hell of a promise; the genius of Big Little Lies is that it delivered, playing its assets off one another, from low-stakes catfights to life-or-death conflicts. Before Big Little Lies, star-driven TV was a collection of Deadline articles. After, it’s a reality, and one with a very high standard for any would-be successors to meet.
The “let stars be stars” model can’t and won’t be replicated at the vast majority of networks, most of whom are working with budgets that are decidedly sub-Witherspoon. But at the very top, where streaming services funded by Silicon Valley and legacy outlets like HBO vie for supremacy, the reversal seems here to stay. In fact, it’s just getting started.
It is important to say: Big Little Lies would not be the future of television if the show hadn’t been such a creative and commercial success; it’s worth establishing why and how that success came to be. The basic recipe of the miniseries—“let [insert centerpieces here] cook, and by ‘cook’ we mean projectile vomit at a dinner party from hell”—is easy enough to internalize, provided one has the funds at hand to do so. Put Dern in an Alaïa coat, find a $15 million Malibu home, and roll tape.
It is more difficult to duplicate the results. For nearly two months in late winter, typically a TV dead zone following the January midseason gold rush, Big Little Lies resurrected an experience that is almost extinct in the binge-watching era: the weekly time-stopping and note-trading that comes with following a show as opposed to merely consuming it. In part because of that traditional release, it’s tempting to remember the show as a bait-and-switch, luring an audience in with literal music-video mansions before presenting the harrowing traumas faced by Kidman’s Celeste Wright, a former lawyer trapped in an abusive marriage, and Woodley’s Jane Chapman, a rape survivor and single mother whose assailant is revealed in the final episode to be Celeste’s violent, manipulative husband. But the genius of Big Little Lies is its ability to frame the pain and insecurity experienced by other characters, while not as acute as Celeste or Jane’s distress, as affecting in their own way.
Both Madeline Mackenzie, the alliterative queen bee played by Witherspoon, and Dern’s Sheryl Sandberg–fever dream Renata Klein served as comic relief when necessary, which was often. (One only had to hear her whisper-scream “AMABELLA!” to crack a smirk.) Both were also prone to projecting extreme vulnerability at the precise moment they thought they were asserting their own strength. Fortunately, Witherspoon has spent decades humanizing the tics and psychoses socialized into modern women by thousands of mixed signals; audiences sneer at Tracy Flick until Witherspoon wipes it off their faces. Dern’s record as a corporate woman on the verge of a breakdown speaks for itself.
Big Little Lies showed that the binary between melodrama and gravitas was always a false choice—that Celeste’s quiet woundedness and Madeline’s ferocious kind existed on the same spectrum, or that genuine horrors could come to light at an Audrey-and-Elvis-themed trivia night. To do so, the show needed principals whose charisma was such a force of nature it could demolish the illusory wall that separated gritty crime from trivial matters like social status and parenting. Big Little Lies had an arsenal; Vallée, Witherspoon, Kidman, and Kelley also knew how to deploy what they had in their hands, and to what end.
Future star vehicles may have the first half of that equation down, but it’s the second that made Big Little Lies more than the sum of its IMDb page. That savvy and self-awareness is partially explained by its origins, which neatly inverted the typical TV pipeline of conception to casting. It had to, given that the cast were the ones who did the conceiving. Witherspoon and Kidman themselves, through their respective production companies, spearheaded the adaptation effort, jointly optioning Moriarty’s book months after its publication and recruiting Kelley and Vallée to help them pull it off. When Big Little Lies won the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series in September, it was Witherspoon and Kidman who accepted the award in their capacity as executive producers. Before and after the actors’ on-screen chemistry as a pair of best friends helped make Big Little Lies a sensation, their off-screen collaboration worked to assemble, then sell the show.
Witherspoon and Kidman themselves chose to couch their relatively unusual degree of authority in terms of feminism, with Witherspoon opening her Emmy speech by urging Hollywood to “bring women to the front of their own stories, and make them the hero of their own stories.” (“More great roles for women, please,” Kidman added moments later.) The party line made sense because it was rooted in truth: Middle-aged women have never been especially well-served by any visual medium, but with the exception of Meryl Streep, those roles are in especially dire straits at the movies. Conversely, as Viola Davis and Jessica Lange have shown, there’s an unprecedented bounty of rich leading parts for that same demographic on television. And while TV has never lacked for complex female characters, figures like Witherspoon are now getting involved behind the camera as well as in front of it.
Eight Emmys and millions of viewers later, Big Little Lies appears to have opened the floodgates, turning the slow trickle of movie-based talent—largely actors and directors, both women and men—to television into a veritable flood. In 2016, Netflix gave a straight-to-series order to Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac without a writer attached to the project (The Leftovers’ Patrick Somerville signed on months later). Netflix was likely banking on Maniac’s stars: Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill and then-nominee, now-reigning Best Actress Emma Stone, making the once-unthinkable career move of following up an Oscar with a TV show. Meanwhile, HBO is sticking with what works in Today Will Be Different, another limited series based on another book by a female author produced by another superstar. Currently in development, Today Will Be Different comes from novelist Maria Semple and none other than Julia Roberts. Incredibly, the milestone of Roberts’s first leading television role was somewhat undercut by the unveiling of a second just weeks later: Homecoming, adapted from the fiction podcast by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail.
Witherspoon’s own follow-up to Big Little Lies will be a full-blown continuing series (something Big Little Lies still might become, too, if that rumored second season ever happens). Costarring Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, the still-untitled project centers on behind-the-scenes drama in the world of morning shows. Rather than developed at a particular network, the show was announced as a pre-fab package to kick-start a bidding war before eventually landing at Apple with a two-season order, another custom inherited from movies and previously alien to television.
New examples continue to accumulate. Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore were set to star in an Amazon series written and directed by David O. Russell before the project was cancelled in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, whose company was producing and cofinancing the series. George Clooney will star in and partially direct a Catch-22 miniseries, still in the suitor-courting stage of searching for a network to call home. Jim Carrey will headline on TV for the first time since In Living Color with a Showtime comedy about a children’s entertainer.
It’s possible that the shifts Big Little Lies heralds are inevitable, and would have come to pass whether Elle Woods and Satine broke ground or not. Major directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher have been gaining traction on TV for some time, thanks to shortened seasons that allow them to exert more control and care over a show’s visual language; it stands to reason that actors were next. But Big Little Lies has set the tone for the phenomenon to come, and it provides a useful opportunity to take stock of that phenomenon before it becomes as ubiquitous as terms like “prestige” or “antihero.” Even if the Big Little Lies template doesn’t change the face of TV, it still offers a new direction for TV to grow into and explore. In this late stage of television’s evolution, there are still new forms it can take, and new kinds of talent it can channel.
Television in 2017 is defined less by a single trait than by a constant redefinition of what “television” can mean. Such grand pronouncements typically conjure up images of Jude Law’s surreal Young Pope or David Lynch’s brain-bending continuation of Twin Peaks. It’s true that those shows are more formally audacious than Big Little Lies, which is ultimately an open-and-shut murder mystery told in clever flashbacks and lyrical cutaways. Yet Big Little Lies offers a more accessible kind of pleasure than either, with a more readily applicable lesson for the many peers aiming to replicate its triumphs: Our appetite for people we like doing things we like watching hasn’t dimmed. If television is now better suited to satisfy that appetite, how long until “movie stars” become simply stars?
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.