Big Little Lies (TV series review)

A new show recently started on HBO in America. Big Little Lies is an adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by Liane Moriarty. The screenplay was written by David E. Kelley and it’s directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. I was made aware of it by the BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Review. By the magic of the internet, I’ve already watched three episodes, but it will begin airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic tomorrow, Monday 13th March at 9PM.

Big Little Lies is a glorious watch. Each episode is one immersive hour inside this small, wealthy Monterey (northern Calif.) community. Colours are so saturated and the cinematography so subject-centric and polished that every scene exudes the rich sumptuousness of these characters California coastline lives. Camerawork is up-close and personal, often claustrophobically so. Just as the characters can’t escape the inexorable forward march of their lives, neither can we the viewers. It reminded me most of the Australian TV novel adaptation The Slap (2011). If you enjoyed that, watch Big Little Lies.


Ignoring for a moment a part of the drama that I will touch on later, the plot of Big Little Lies is the gradual revelation of each character’s personality, private lives, backstory, hopes and fears. There’s much more depth, emotion and humanity than in, say Desperate Housewives (2004-12). There’s also a focus beyond simply rich, beautiful, smart, unfulfilled women. Their husbands are full characters themselves, and their first-grade children receive significant airtime. This is both because the mothers live much of their social life vicariously through their sons and daughters, but also because the next generation are, in themselves valuable characters that add greatly to our understanding of these people, their community and their lives.

Cinematography & ACTING

depth-of-field focus between two characters

The camera spends ninety-five percent of its time focused upon humans. An extremely shallow depth of field is used throughout to isolate them from their environment and, where dramatic effect warrants it, from each other. This leads to a very cinematic experience, both mirroring the characters Hollywood-perfect lifestyles, and drawing us right in there with them. We’re forced to understand and empathise, and where we can’t manage to (and those scenes do come) we’re left to squirm and ruminate.

facial lighting to indicate character mood

Wherever possible the camera tells the story, whether through framing, focus and lighting or the eye movements and micro-expressions of the people. As already noted, Vallée places his actors centre stage and in-your-face at every opportunity. To pull this off, he needs good actors. Sure enough, Hollywood heavyweights Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman lead the cast list, but every actor, including the children, rewards his faith in them. Kidman in particular has a very challenging role to play, but to watch her you’d say she weren’t acting. She is simply living her life and we flies on the wall, like moths to a flame, watch, bewitched.

The Ocean

the relentless Pacific Ocean

As noted by Susan Jeffreys on Saturday Review, there is one additional character in this saga – the sea. If the camera isn’t lingering, infatuated, on one of the perfectly beautiful human characters, then it rests upon the Pacific Ocean. This is sometimes opportunity for scenic landscapes of the Pacific relentlessly swooshing up bare, golden beaches or launching itself with deadly gusto upon rocks and low cliffs. But more often than not, cinematographer Yves Bélanger fills the screen with uncomfortable close-ups of the powerful swell, or of the surf smoothing over a footprint in the sand but never erasing it. The human characters too, often seem able to smooth over their own histories and conflicts, but can’t escape or erase them.

Sound & Dialogue

The soundtrack is largely environmentally lead. It isn’t done with quite the existential imperative of American Honey (2016), but this kind of audio mixing, where we only hear music if the characters are listening to it in their car, at home or second-hand, because it’s blaring out of a house in the background, is infinitely preferable to a violin concerto’s attempts at emotional manipulation.

Beautiful people taking beautiful photos

In Kelley’s script, dialogue is lean and refined. It’s full of just the right lines and nothing more. When a character other than “active speaker” Madeline has something to say, and she doesn’t often let them get a word in edgeways, you can be sure it couldn’t have been conveyed visually. Gordon Klein (played by Jeffrey Nordling), having finished reassuring his wife that she’s loved, can’t help himself but drop a ‘pithy aphorism’, “women, you all want to be the envy of your friends, but God forbid you garner too much of it.” Garner. The word sticks in your stomach, and evidently Renata’s too, as her whole face contorts upon hearing it.

A Criticism

If you do watch this you’ll probably realise that throughout the story I have laid out there runs another one; flash forwards to a crime scene and police interviews. I haven’t talked out this because for me, at least in the first three episodes, I found the underlying narrative force of a whodunit unnecessary. Annoyingly, scenes are constantly interrupted by interviewees spelling out what the viewer can intuit simply by watching. I can only hope that as the series draws to a close – it’s only seven, hour episodes long – the crime adds something meaningful to the experience. Currently, I am just enjoying the immersion into these people’s lives.

And it really makes you want to go to California.

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