Big Little Lies: TV Review

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One of the biggest winners of the 2018 awards season, with buzz for a second coming after the recent conclusion of season 2, Big Little Lies is a television mini-series stars and all-star cast including the likes of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, and, in season 2 only, the one and only Meryl Streep. The show touches on some startlingly real subject matter; exposing the air of deceit and confusion that underlies the seemingly picture-perfect lives of five mothers in an affluent neighbourhood in California. It brings to light conversations about abusive relationships, obsessive parenting, social hierarchy and power dynamics, and the nature of marriage to name a few. The show is based on the novel by Liane Moriarty and is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and Andrea Arnold, having been created by David E. Kelly.

I had been waiting quite a while to see this one. It’s reputation preceded itself, of course, and with a cast like the one that signed on to this, it was hard not to jump at it. I should say right off the bat that Big Little Lies is a fantastic show, it really is. At a bare minimum, it’s first rate social commentary. The themes I mentioned in the intro are just a few of the main ideas that are addressed in every single episode. The fact that they communicate such a range of ideas so effectively with only 14 episodes is a testament to some fantastic adaptation and teleplay. That comes across in the syntax of it just as much as it does on the more conceptual level; the show is deftly written, striking just the right tone. There’s just enough believability in the way the narrative unfolds for the reality of the situation to come across. A lot of the tone comes with the visuals, which I’ll get to in a sec, but first and foremost I have to acknowledge the phenomenal job done by a cast of actors that absolutely left it all out there to be had. A combination of quality writing and showstopping performances from nearly everyone on screen – from the Monterey Five to Adam Scott, the unsung hero of the show in many ways, to the child actors –  gives rise to some of the strongest character work in such a short period of time that I’ve seen in a long time. I really wish I could get into specifics, with the benefit of hindsight I might have done season by season reviews; next time I suppose.

I do the feel the overall strength of the show is just a little bit weaker in the second season as compared to the first; still fantastic, but just a little less interesting. The narrative structure of the first season, with the constant jumping back and forth between the build-up and the aftermath of what ends up becoming the chronically anticipated fundraiser setting allows for a lot of dramatic tension which the second season just doesn’t have. I don’t mean to say the second season isn’t dramatically tense, it certainly is, but it plays into some amount of predictability in the way that it develops. What the first season doesn’t have, which the second season resoundingly does, is Meryl Streep. That woman is just something else. The two seasons actually contrast each other in a lot of ways. The first season is, of course, a batshit zoo circus at times, where the town of Monterey more closely resembles a battle ground veiled in glitz and marble. The second season actually sees, in many ways, a little more internal solidarity for the Monterey Five, in spite of their own worlds falling apart by ways of marriage troubles and bankruptcy and custody and the crushing guilt of murder. It’s a slightly tense show.

It’s got some stunning visuals. There are some supremely clever editing tricks and flicks in there which might go unnoticed if you’re not looking for them, but beyond that they’ve chosen a hell of a place as location for the series. The visuals in general, particularly the lens filter, does a lot to add up to the mood of the show, which is, undoubtedly, a pretty gloomy one. There’s an interesting balance struck between being not especially upbeat at any particular moment, but staying just on or close enough to the fringe so as to not overload the audience’s emotional capacity. It takes some clever writing, and some stellar character work, but they sit hard on that balance and it plays for them in the relatively short amount of time the show runs for.
I really don’t enjoy writing TV reviews; I really want to get into specifics and the nitty gritty about the shows but I also don’t want to bore you. I think I’ll be changing the format soon, reviewing shows on a season by season basis. In the meantime, this ones serves primarily as a strong recommendation for the shows as opposed to a proper review of it. We’re looking at a fantastic cast of actors who deliver hard on character arcs across both seasons, supported by some first rate writing that manages to find and hold on to the balance between strong character and strong thematic perspective. Big Little Lies is a fantastic show that warrants all the attention it’s getting. A part of me hopes it doesn’t come back for a third season. I won’t give away the end of the second season, but it feels like an adequately closed loop at that point. All in all, a nuanced and effective commentary about a part of our society we don’t often see commented on, at a confluence of some of the strongest writing and acting talent in the game right now. A must-watch.

– Aman Datta

Aman’s Score: 86/100                                                             Aryamaan’s Score:

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