When you finish watching a TV series feeling pleasantly surprised that its female characters were consistently well-written from start to finish, you realise just how low the bar is when it comes to writing fictional women. However, the bar is now a few centimetres higher thanks to Big Little Lies, an HBO miniseries centring around the mothers of a handful of first graders at an elementary school in Monterey, California.
When ‘Somebody’s Dead’ is the title of episode one, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re signing up for. From the outset, the audience is bombarded with snappy editing that juxtaposes the main plot and character exposition with people being interviewed in a police station. We only get snippets of statements from these witnesses, frustratingly vague soundbites to haphazardly assemble (like IKEA furniture, but with murder). The miniseries format means the tension is successfully maintained without being stretched too thin, culminating almost overwhelmingly in the finale.
Visually, it’s sleek, polished, and cinematic. Even the cast looks more suited to a blockbuster, starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley (apparently taking a break from her usual genre, Adaptations of YA Novels That Also Star Ansel Elgort).
Music is another thing the show does well. Much of the soundtrack is diegetic, and a particularly good use of this is a scene involving Leon Bridges’ ‘River’. It’s one of the quiet, tender moments in the series, which even Adam Scott’s terrible facial hair doesn’t quite manage to ruin.
But to only credit Big Little Lies for its polished production values is to do it a disservice, because it’s the writing that makes it a truly standout series. A TV show where all the main characters are complex, three-dimensional women, not confined to lazy archetypes, is unfortunately still pretty ground-breaking in mainstream television. It is refreshing to see onscreen women being held to the same moral standards as their male counterparts; being allowed to mess up and make mistakes without having to “redeem” themselves.
Female friendship is an integral part of the show, which is also rare to see. “I believe women are chemically incapable of forgiveness,” is the proclaim of one male witness, but as much as the story is about feuds and grudges, it is about overcoming them. Added to that is the fact that the women are all mothers, a demographic too often shoved onto the backburner in favour of younger women.
You can’t talk about Big Little Lies without talking about the darker points of the series. Violence is a major theme – domestic violence, sexual violence, and ultimately, gendered violence. It’s a topic that is so frequently, and irresponsibly, used as a plot device or for shock factor. So, although it should be the bare minimum for sexual violence to be portrayed conscientiously onscreen, Big Little Lies does a good job of working through the emotional repercussions for those affected. Moreover, it’s less about the violence and more about how the characters live through it and despite it. Its purpose is not to shock so much as it is to unsettle, making the audience empathise rather than sympathise and always trying to avoid being exploitative. It’s a precarious line to walk, but it works.
The residents of Monterey are also living precariously. With the Pacific Ocean a constant backdrop to the action (there’s a lot of pensive staring at the sea. Like, a lot), they often seem in danger of drowning: at home, at school, at work. Big Little Lies is less concerned with whether these characters learn to swim but rather with how they tread water, and how sometimes that’s enough.