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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Big Little Lies

[Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week, the discussion is about the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.]

Kevin: 

Horror Vacui -- translation: "Nature abhors a vacuum," attributed to Aristotle

I'm a big believer in the concept of "hedonic adaptation," the idea that everyone has their own equilibrium with regards to happiness (or unhappiness, as the case may be), and that external events don't have much of a lasting impact in either direction. Fundamentally miserable folks who win the lottery are going to be just as disgruntled a year later, whereas more cheerful sorts who weather tough times will eventually rebound to their original dispositions. 

Taken another way, it also means that we generally stop appreciating the especially good things in our lives, even if those involve, say, living in mansions which overlook the Pacific Ocean. If you're prone to petty jealousies and itching for fights, why should such idyllic environs get in your way? Such are the inhabitants of Monterey, CA* in HBO's miniseries Big Little Lies. 

[*Of course, this didn't deter me from googling "apartments Monterey CA" as soon as I finished the series. And from looking up the weather -- highs between 60 and 72 year-round, my friends.]

At the outset of BLL, it's clear that something has gone horribly wrong. There's been a death at a local gala. A police investigation is underway. Townsfolk are being interviewed. These interview snippets -- which pop up throughout the entire series -- are quite a clever way at setting up the players involved. 

Here, the women rule the roost, from the feisty, vindictive Madeline (Reese Witherspoon, very much in Election's Tracy Flick mode) and her nemesis Renata (Laura Dern, as a take-no-prisoners corporate bigwig), to the graceful, beguiling Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and newcomer Jane (Shailene Woodley). All are moms with children in the same first-grade class, where an incident on the first day of school triggers an escalating chain of events. 

Unsurprisingly, considering the all-star cast, the series is a showcase for some serious acting chops -- with Kidman's Celeste leading the way as the Woman Who Seemingly Has It All... but is hiding dark secrets behind closed doors. Her interactions with husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) and therapist Amanda (Robin Weigert) are among the most powerful of the series, albeit brutally so. How much of a facade does each of us present to the outside world?

While watching, I was also reminded of the brilliant series Rome -- which featured quite a number of powerful females as well. While the men marched off to command armies in the field, it was the royal ladies who waged war of a different sort back at home. Here, the husbands of Monterey are involved in the game, but whose interactions largely come only as a result of their wives' entanglements. (And if there's a sympathetic male character here, it has to be that of the hapless school principal who's charged with the unenviable task of keeping the peace.) 

Clarence, what did you think of the contrast between the gorgeous exterior of the town... and the inhabitants which make up its underbelly? Did the foreshadowing re: the police investigation work for you as a plot device? And is BLL a bit of a landmark achievement regarding female-centric shows? 

Clarence:

BLL is the not the genre of storytelling I normally consume. But I enjoyed this one for its satire and brutal examination of an important problem in society.

What struck me was the physical setup of the story. I've never seen such a setting that was so picture-perfect yet also felt so confined. It felt like the characters all lived along the same narrow strip of land bordered by an unknown world on one side and the vast ocean on the other.

As far as the story goes, there is no outside world beyond this community. The only person who ventures outside of the town regularly is Perry, and that's only for the generic "business trip." Nobody reads a newspaper, watches the news, or even calls someone from beyond their community. Several odd touches throughout the series (the "Dress Like Audrey Hepburn or Elvis Presley" dance, and the family car singalong to Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams") added to the slightly surreal nature of the place.

I thought the police framing device, along with other visual techniques, was very effective in quickly setting up several simple-yet-vitally important mysteries from the past, present and future: Who is the man who changed Jane's life so dramatically? Who's responsible for what happening to Renata's daughter at school? Who got killed at the dance? Who did the killing? And what's going to happen to Celeste? The series has the directness of film noir, something I found appealing.

[And I would like to brag that I solved two of the five before the end of the series. *patting self on back*] 

There seems to be a Post-Feminist bent to the series, a term I hope I'm using correctly. While the female main characters are strong and (mostly) call the shots in their relationships, contemporary feminist issues regarding workplace harassment and the glass ceiling are secondary to concerns about taking care of the children. It felt like reaching back to a much more traditional storytelling motif while adding on modern characterizations.

The heavy plot focus on the children makes this story different from the typical soap opera, as they are both the key motivations for action and the characters' points of vulnerability. While I thought the children did a great job with their roles, Madeline's youngest daughter came off as way too precocious for me. Every line of her dialogue is a spot-on quip or sarcastic retort. I blame the writers for indulging their worst instincts when it comes to putting wrong words in kids' mouths. And I don't care how smart they are, first-graders don't have music playlists.

That aside, this is was an absorbing series to watch. But should there be more? Adam Scott recently hinted that there might be a season two for this show. Should there be? After seeing the conclusion, where else is there to go?

I'm glad to see Reese Witherspoon doing a project like this. After Sweet Home Alabama I was afraid we'd lost her to Mainstream Comedy forever. Nicole Kidman will probably be up for some awards for her role. I think she did a great job, but I've never been a fan. Same with Laura Dern, who seemed to be given the role with the least amount of depth. She seemed to spend most of her time pacing and yelling. Do you have any strong feelings one way or the other for these famous leads?

Kevin:

I know it was billed as a bit of a "dark comedy," but I didn't see too much satire here! (I guess that tells you what I thought of the main players involved?)

Agreed on the "bubble" nature of the show -- Jane explicitly brings up how the Monterey World feels alien to her, and she's also the only main character who doesn't reside in a beachfront mansion. The Stepford Smiler trope is in full effect here, particularly with Madeline, who's feeling pressure from two directions; in addition to the standard shadow rivalries she seems to have with the other SuperMoms, she also is losing the battle for her oldest daughter's affections to her ex-husband's new wife, the beautiful and much younger Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). 

But this also goes back to what I was saying in the intro -- if these folks took a step back from their wars (over local theater productions, birthday parties, and the like), they'd see that they have everything and should be thrilled each and every morning they get out of bed. Of course, if I wind up emigrating to Monterey, it's quite possible that I'd get sucked into this vortex as well, with my friends eventually receiving communicados chronicling my disappointments with the imperfections of local tennis courts and juice bars. ("#waterymangosmoothie #dejected")

Outside of the introspective Wild (also featuring Laura Dern), I don't think I've seen Witherspoon since Election? She does have the harried, smiling-through-gritted-teeth busybody persona down pat -- so much so that you start wondering what her second husband Ed (who explicitly complains of being viewed as a consolation prize) sees in her. As far as Laura Dern's Renata, the adjective "cronish" came to mind? (Perhaps she commuted to work on a broom?) I was much more interested in Kidman's Celeste, and the exploration of the issues of domestic abuse. Was her husband Perry always violent? Was that part of the attraction during the courtship process? Why are the abused so reticent to come forward? And so on. 

As for Madeline's youngest daughter, Chloe -- wait, you weren't talking about Bowie and bragging about wanting to start a record label when you were six years old? I'm pretty sure I was playing my "Pop Goes the Weasel" 45, ad infinitum. The precociousness of that kid was a bit of a glaring flaw in what was otherwise a well-written story; her only rival in my eyes was the little sister from (500) Days of Summer. At least Chloe wasn't spouting off relationship advice like the latter.

And no, I'm not in favor of a Season 2 for BLL, though it would interesting to see how long the solidarity between the moms (shown via a series-ending beach picnic) lasts, given the personalities involved? 

I was trying to think of why this sort of story, and soap operas in general -- though as you mentioned, this really isn't one -- wouldn't seem to work in Generic Suburbia as opposed to a locale that's rich and exotic. And I'm coming up blank as far as specific reasons, though I definitely believe this to be the case! Do you have any thoughts on this? 

Clarence:

I think it was the characters of Chloe and Renata were the ones who got me thinking about BLL in satiric terms. Compared to the realistic nature of the other characters, those two really stuck out as if they were written more as yuppie stereotypes of Momma Grizzlies and My Kid Is So Smart.

This is the kind of environment where someone like Witherspoon excels. If you hire her for a project, you know you're getting a "type." But she brings a depth to her performance only a talented actor possesses. Yes, she's Tracy Flick manic and silly, but I could also see the character's inner motivations of regret and panic over her choices and the things happening to her. It's a kind of performance I don't see from someone like Aubrey Plaza (Parks & Recreation, Safety Not Guaranteed), another stylistically distinct actor who, unlike Witherspoon, unfortunately appears to have only one gear when it comes to range.

A pretty daring aspect of how the producers depict Celeste and Perry's relationship is how it's tied to their sexual intimacy. Up to a point, Celeste is a willing participant in the physical tension between the two. He hits her. She hits back. And then they have sex. It's a dangerous line the storytellers are walking, and I agree with you in that I would have appreciated a little more context into how those two got together.

I think how that relationship played out helps to answer why this kind of story wouldn't work in a regular suburban setting. Very few abused women have the means to set themselves up in alternative beachfront property, fully furnished, as a step in getting away from their abusers. Having the cash to pay for a string of private therapists and spend days building sisterhood at the coffee shop and the running trail is also beyond the reach of all but a certain social strata.

If this story had taken place in, say, the less-well-off neighborhoods of Napa, CA (setting of the excellent TV show Mom instead of the exclusive parts of Monterey, it would have to end differently. In those terms, it maybe makes sense that this series takes place among the upper-class, where issues of material comfort don't really apply. The Hedonic Adaptation you mentioned earlier becomes less of an issue of wealth and more of personal fulfillment by, above all else, finding out and facing the truth about your life.

Did you see this series? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!

 

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