With Netflix apparently releasing new TV shows every week, I’ve quickly found that there’s far too much “prestige TV” for me to keep up with. But last night, I let myself indulge in a rare binge: after having seen some intriguing previews, I switched on HBO’s new miniseries “Big Little Lies.“ I was not disappointed: in fact, it’s been more than a year since a show gripped me so intensely. Powered by Jean-Marc Vallée’s exceptional direction and an A-list cast, “Big Little Lies” is a compulsively watchable experience that balances classic suspense with sober insights into community flourishing.
Set amid the opulence of Monterey, California,”Big Little Lies” focuses on three moms whose children share the same first-grade classroom. There’s Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), a “Mean Girls”–esque busybody who finds herself at the epicenter of every community controversy. There’s Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a lawyer-turned-mom trapped in a physically abusive marriage to her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). And there’s Jane (Shailene Woodley), a young newcomer to the community, who gets off on the wrong foot when her son is accused of hurting the daughter of icy businesswoman Renata (Laura Dern).
As the series opens, the audience learns that a school “Trivia Night” has gone horribly awry, resulting in someone’s death. The circumstances of this death—and even the victim’s identity!—remain unclear until the final minutes of the show, charging the proceedings with a sense of mystery and menace.
‘Big Little Lies’ Unfolds In A Heartless Progressive Utopia
Notwithstanding this strong setup,”Big Little Lies” seems destined early on to slip into soapiness (which, admittedly, is often very funny). The show spends plenty of time following warring moms who use their children as pawns to settle petty, Mean Girls-style grudges. But by the end of the series, it’s clear that the show has far more on its mind than black comedy.
What makes”Big Little Lies” so unique, and compulsively watchable, is its atypical setting. The series unfolds in the heart of a progressive utopia: the community is diverse (discrimination seems to be a total non-issue), everyone’s successful and highly educated, and they all have more money than they know what to do with. The standard linchpins of “socially conscious” TV—poverty, racism, politics—are nowhere in sight. Instead,”Big Little Lies” ends up being something much more daring: a scathing indictment of its own viewers’ dream lifestyle.
In some ways, it’s surprising this series aired when it did. If the runaway popularity of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and “This American Life”’s new “S-Town” podcast is any indication, American blue-staters (which, let’s be real, are”Big Little Lies”’ target audience) are endlessly fascinated by “Community Decay in Trump’s America” narratives.”Big Little Lies” is the antithesis of those stories: instead, it’s an interrogation of individual vice among privileged progressives in an ostensibly flourishing community.
A Community Obsessed With Self-Actualization At Any Cost
On the surface, the show’s Monterey is a model community. Everyone knows everyone. The community is deeply invested in the lives of its children, in its community art projects (a theatrical production of “Avenue Q” is a major plot point), and in its commitments to health and localism. Ironically,”Big Little Lies”’ Monterey checks virtually all the boxes of standard conservative rhetoric about community building.
But this shallow beauty conceals deep ugliness. As it turns out,”Big Little Lies”’ yoga studios, ice rinks, and coffee shops exist not to bring people together, but rather to entertain adults obsessed with their own self-actualization at any cost. (One can’t help but feel sorry for the children raised in such dysfunctional homes.) These characters know no imperatives beyond their own satisfaction: everything in life, from relationships to children, must be oriented to their pleasure.
In essence, what this show offers is a haunting vision of localism without virtue. To truly thrive, communities require more than mere closeness of persons: they need a common moral language that affirms the importance of self-giving. In”Big Little Lies,” there’s no church, synagogue, mosque, or organized humanist group in sight, and one can’t help thinking that’s no coincidence. These characters have lost any sense—however distant—of transcendence, leaving”Big Little Lies”’ Monterey a hollowed-out imitation of true community.
A Strong Undercurrent Of Morality Throughout
Yet despite its seemingly “progressive” ambiance,”Big Little Lies” rests on a deeply traditional moral framework. When Celeste finally pushes back against her husband’s physical abuse, she lays down a hard moral line: if she continues submitting to his violence, how can she then teach her sons that men shouldn’t hit women? That’s a categorical statement about right and wrong, not something that needs to be contextualized, “Fifty Shades of Grey”-style, to allow the possibility of consensual S&M.
When Madeline’s estranged teenage daughter Abigail attempts to auction off her virginity online as a transgressive, performance-arty “protest against sex slavery,” Madeline pushes back against it because it’s the wrong thing to do. Madeline’s argument is a moral one, not tied to “danger” or something similarly instrumental. When it’s eventually learned that Jane’s son is the product of date rape, the revelation lends a deep emotional weightiness to Jane’s decision to carry her child to term and raise him as a single mom. Even more broadly, this is a show where the scars of past divorce are keenly felt, and where infidelity isn’t glamorous, but instead agonizing to the conscience.
This constructive tension of themes —between poison-tinged utopianism and “old-fashioned morality”— is what makes “Big Little Lies” so good. These characters are desperate for a grammar of real good and real evil, ways of conceiving human flourishing that go beyond material wealth and sexual ecstasy. That undercurrent is powerful, even if viewers aren’t consciously aware of it.
In a world of mediocre television,”Big Little Lies” is a rare gem. (A word of warning: this series does contain domestic violence and sexual assault, and is decidedly not appropriate for all-ages viewing.) Few shows have the courage to critique their intended audiences so sharply, but that pointedness is what makes the series so memorable. From its top-tier production values to its emotionally complex subtexts,”Big Little Lies” fully delivers on its potential. If, like me, you’ve been missing “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones,” this show will tide you over in style.