The HBO drama offers a strange gray-area of self-awareness that had me binging if only to ask…”Wait…is this show laughing at itself?”
Ah yes, the experiential review. A fan-favorite of snarky postmodern pundits everywhere. There’s something about faux-intelligent people attempting to inject superfluous meaning into the passivity of television and movies using convoluted situational comedy that brings the internet-dregs running. It’s even better when these people think making fun of themselves in the opening paragraph absolves them of guilt. But until I have the financial resources to pull off “I Did a 12-hour Two And A Half Men Marathon Inside of the ‘Vomit Comet’ That Ron Howard Used to Film Apollo 13 (1995),” you’re all going to have to make do with my drunkenly watching Jean-Marc Vallée’s WASPy HBO series, Big Little Lies.
WARNING: Spoilers abound for Big Little Lies.
Word-of-mouth brought me to Big Little Lies, the same way it’ll bring flyover tourists to overpriced burger stands in midtown and sadomasochists to the bathroom in rest-stop Tim Hortonses. Up until I finally sat down to watch, all I knew about the show was gleaned from bus-stop advertisements; Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley – from the director of Dallas Buyer’s Club…etc…etc… but a good-many friends told me it was surprisingly addictive despite how grotesquely bourgeois it seemed. I decided the prestige of the cast and director was enough to give the pilot a chance. Four hours later, I had burned through more than half the 7-episode season and forced myself to go to sleep.
Full disclosure; I didn’t actually get started on the titular Grapefruit IPA until the next day, so I watched a good four-and-a-half episodes of this show stone-cold sober. I’m not going to wax pretentious and claim that I kept watching out of some sense of ironic superiority, a la “Oh I’m so much better than this show but I’ll watch it anyway just to make fun of it.” No, I’m not better than Big Little Lies. At no point during the 7-hour runtime did I ever feel as if I was watching something unworthy of my time or attention. Big Little Lies is as meticulously crafted as it is acted and directed, boasting some gorgeous cinematography and fast-beat editing. If you’ve ever seen any of Vallée’s other films, you’ll have a sense of the visual language here, but even if you haven’t, his atemporal and emotionally resonant flashback frame-tale style is quick to imprint. Episodes climax not with plot-driven revelations, but with nuanced, subtextual visual-bouquets of dreamscapes, fantasies, horrifying visions, and ambiguous memories. Granted, a lot of these involve some starlet’s bare breasts plastered against a translucent shower-door, but it’s not like this show ever attempted to disguise its target audience.
Kidman, Woodley, and Witherspoon all deliver fine performances. Kidman in particular, who doubles as an executive producer with Witherspoon, deserves exceptional praise for her disturbingly demoralized portrayal of an abuse-victim, and Woodley is finally allowed to do more than survive a teen-dystopia. The supporting cast is great, and if not for the compelling performances of some of the fringe characters, a good chunk of the hopelessly cliche B-plot would be nearly unwatchable. Expect Austenian affairs, backstabbing, marital drama, soft-core sex scenes, teen angst, and strangely captivating elementary school politics. If you can forgive enough of Adam Scott’s lumberjack-y beard and Zoe Kravitz’s “Look I’m a hippy!” quinoa-poetics, maybe you’ll be able to soldier on through to the meat of the story.
Before I move on to what, in my opinion, is the raison d’etre for Big Little Lies’ success, I have to spend at least a paragraph on Laura Dern. To talk about Laura Dern, I need to first talk about the confusion between great acting and “great” acting. Great acting, like Dern’s performance in Big Little Lies, involves building a character, understanding that character, and then stepping into that character for the moment of the scene. ‘Great’ acting is losing 200lb for a role in order to ‘prepare,’ or cutting your hand on a piece of glass and continuing to act. I’m a big proponent of the former and a big FUCK YOU of the latter.
‘Method’ technique is a gimmick – and I say this with the utmost respect for the actors who have used it to excel as artists, although I would argue that their success is never owed to the technique, but rather complemented by it, and more impacted by that particular performer’s additional training or innate charisma. Method acting had its day and it’s debatable whether the likes of Brando and James Dean should even be commended for unleashing it upon Western cinema in the first place. With the exceptions of Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, no one is good enough at ‘becoming’ a character to warrant pop culture’s cultish obsession with being ‘method.’ Actors like Fassbender and Bale who lionize this sort of attention-seeking style are twisting entertainment economics into more of a viral-marketing campaign, in which the success of a TV show or movie depends upon buzz generated by its leads’ ostensible commitment to their roles. Leonardo DiCaprio, who was far more deserving of an Oscar for his lean and precise work in The Departed (2006) or even Shutter Island (2010), needed to spend 6 months mortifying his fucking flesh in the tundra to win an Oscar for The Revenant (2015).
There’s a story I love from the making of Scorsese’s Silence (2016). During filming, Andrew Garfield attempted to refuse even saying ‘hello’ to Liam Neeson on set because their respective characters do not meet until halfway through the film and Garfield wanted to save their emotionally charged reunion for when the cameras were rolling. Garfield, who famously did the Bale-esque preparation for his role as Father Rodrigues by losing a ton of weight and living in a convent for a month, was mortified when Neeson walked up to him well before their scene together and gave him a big hug. Garfield attempted to shoo him away, saying, “No, save it for the scene!” but Neeson responded with his big hearty “I’m Liam-fucking-Neeson you little ween” laugh and said, “Act it.”
Laura Dern is the living embodiment of this story. Fuck, do I love Laura Dern. And it’s not just because of Blue Velvet (1986) (it’s a little-bit because of Blue Velvet). Laura Dern is a criminally underrated actor. Most of David Lynch’s discoveries are – MacLachlan, Watts, Arquette, Sherilyn Fenn – but out of all of them, I believe Dern is the most expressive and the most complex performer, except for perhaps Sheryl Lee. Laura Dern has made a career out of not being method – out of understanding the self-contained and layered weight of characters as they exist in the world of the screen, not in 9-months of character prep during pre-production. She rejects the nefarious laziness of method acting – that over-reliance on preparation instead of raw talent – and steps into her roles with confidence and extemporaneous gusto. Her role as Renata Klein on Big Little Lies is all at once vulnerable, powerful, domineering, subservient, and frightened. She’s easily the most interesting character on the show and towers over all of her scenes. She’s got that long, loping gait and those deep eyes that brim with conflicting emotion. She’s hyper-real and genuine to the point of making the loose-camera style of Big Little Lies feel like a documentary. During her many tirades every part of her face lights up with rage, or more accurately, with all the emotions her character is attempting to subsume beneath it. If there exists a super-cut of every single one of Laura Dern’s scenes in Big Little Lies, I’d tell you to skip the show and just watch that.
Ultimately, however, Big Little Lies succeeds because of how shameless it is. I’m not talking about risque content or ‘bold and risky’ storytelling or anything so self-aggrandizing. I mean Big Little Lies seems painfully aware of how fucking ridiculous it is to ask you to care about the problems of obscenely rich white people living on the Pacific Coast. A million-and-a-half shows are guilty of perpetuating this ‘privilege-drama’ genre, but Big Little Lies is not Pretty Little Liars, despite the deliberate invocation. Instead, the HBO drama offers a strange gray-area of self-awareness that had me binging if only to ask…”Wait…is this show laughing at itself?” The training-wheel surrealism in the dream sequences and run-of-the-mill plot both purport an ease-of-accessibility that would contradict this assumption. Whether or not Big Little Lies offers some sort of wink-at-the-camera ulterior premise is entirely subjective, and truthfully there might be nothing more to this murder-mystery than the surface-level story of abuse, victimization, and intrigue.
I’m always on board for a narrative characterizing men as aggressors and illustrating how conflict between women often results from the debilitating constructs of patriarchal society. But there is ambiguity in how seriously one should be taking this show. Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a victim of serious abuse by her husband, is able to simply buy a seaside apartment in their nouveau-riche bay-community and keep it as a fully stocked escape-route for her and her children. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is a single Mom working as a part-time bookkeeper who manages to afford a cute little bungalow and the commensurate property tax in Monterey, a town populated exclusively by web developers and tech-CEOs. Madeline (Witherspoon) still lives in the same fucking town as her neglectful ex-husband and his new family. Everyone drives Lincolns and Jaguars and Cadillacs. The story is intercut with eyewitness testimonies from the town’s various residents, all of whom claim to have witnessed the events leading up to the murder at the center of the series, and this typecast bundle of minor characters are all woefully stereotyped – the two rich gay dads, the nervous Jewish principal, the snooty WASPy PTA Mom, the wisecracking black father, the Asian nanny (way to go, HBO), and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Monterey is so obviously a caricature of rich-town America that it’s difficult to not see some sort of mockery at the heart of Big Little Lies. Yes, I was initially engrossed in discovering the identity of the victim and the murderer(s). But I guessed both of those correctly in the third episode – the show doesn’t really make it too hard for you. So why did I keep watching? Especially after the third Grapefruit IPA?!
Big Little Lies isn’t going to go down as a historical show. If anything, it’s just another drop in the increasingly deep pond of high-prestige premium cable mini-series a la The Night Before and Show Me A Hero. Quality for quality’s sake is a fine enough reason to invest yourself into a program, and the well-crafted cinema on display in Big Little Lies precludes any need to justify having watched this show. It’s good. There should never be guilt associated with enjoying any art, and the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ is a SEO-friendly patina for shaming people, but Big Little Lies is not even deserving of that misguided expression. My Mom and I both loved it despite our disparate tastes. However, at the end of the day, there is some kernel of meta-cinema lurking at the heart of Big Little Lies that compelled me to down the whole thing like good Scotch. I can’t say for sure if it’s the putative self-awareness of the show, or maybe the pulse-pounding editing style, or the rhythmic repetition of scenes from episode to episode, or the resplendent visuals. But I can say that there’s something – something – cranking the wheel behind the curtain of my rapture. There has to be, right?
Why else would I have just spent 7 hours watching rich white people suffer?