HBO’s “Big Little Lies” is a murder mystery, a drama about domestic violence and bullying, and a darkly funny playground satire. Its targets are over-involved helicopter moms living in beachfront splendor–women who use their excess brainpower and energy to square off over their kids’ playground squabbles as though they’re an endless, merciless war. This juicy material, adapted from a perfect summer novel by Australian writer Liane Moriarty, is drawing out incredible performances from A-listers like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley.
The show deftly manages to skewer its wound-up moms while also making us sympathetic to them—which is the reason I am currently addicted. Beneath the sly soap, the show has something to say. Indeed, watching this drama unfold while my baby sleeps (and sometimes wakes up) has given it a poignant dimension for me, especially the many scenes it depicts of mothers and their kids.
These are the most humanizing moments: cuddles in bed, laughter in (extremely spacious) living rooms, funny and sweet with an undercurrent of doom. You’re rooting for the kids, who are by and large kinder and more intuitive than their maternal watchdogs—and you’re also rooting for the moms to get their shit together for the sake of those winsome offspring.
But the moms (and dads) prefer wading into the mire and shouting threats at each other, hence the drama. Because doing the right thing, for the show’s working mom and full-time mommies alike, would mean no longer treating their kids’ birthday parties and the rivalries that spring up over community theater as though they serve only to provide validation for their existence.
“You are dead in this town,” Laura Dern’s Renata barks to Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline regarding a kiddie birthday party no-show, and it’s both hilarious and creepy—because most moms have a little bit of that anger in them, perhaps not as far from the surface as we’d think.
Emily Nussbaum, writing for The New Yorker, recently compared the show’s protagonist, the wonderfully bossy Madeline, to Jane Austen’s notoriously interfering Emma in the classic novel of the same name. And just as Emma could be read, today, as a warning about the meddling that results when smart young women have nothing to do except get married. “Big Little Lies” works as a parable about the dangers posed by smart modern women who simply don’t have enough of substance to do with themselves.
The bohemian, pleasant coffee shop where the three main characters meet and chat after school drop-off, no longer pre-occupied by their kiddos, is kind of sinister in that sense. Yes, it’s the scene of their bonding—but trouble starts brewing there, too. They rile each other up and form teams, conspiring to deepen the rifts between the various factions in their kids’ classes.
Beware the idling of mom.
The show is even more explicit about this subtext in the fourth episode, when Nicole Kidman’s character Celeste—a retired lawyer whose husband has insisted she stay at home with their twins—dons a suit once more to advocate at a city meeting about whether or not the musical “Avenue Q” is too obscene. After Celeste dominates the meeting with her defense of free speech, she confesses to Madeline how she suddenly feels: “For six years, I’ve been wiping running noses, organizing playdates, doing …everything to be a good mom, you know, and today, I felt alive, I felt good. Is that crazy?” She continues: “I feel so ashamed for saying this, but being a mother is not enough for me. It’s just not. It’s not even close. It’s evil, right? It’s evil?”
“It’s not evil,” says Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline, honking her horn for emphasis as she confesses that she agrees, reciting a line that feels like it could become a mantra. It’s not evil at all: “I. Want. More!” (Indeed, the scene is already being praised and dissected by feminist critics.)
Of course, Witherspoon’s desire for more hasn’t exactly quieted her temperament, leading her into fights over community theater and a possible extramarital affair. The show isn’t saying that all moms need to work, either. It’s saying, I think, that mothers, like everyone, need some kind of personal fulfillment beyond their kids, because kids grow up— and parents need to, too. Even the one mom who actually needs to work for a living, Shailene Woodley’s Jane, has used her son Ziggy as an excuse not to get help and work through the major trauma that led to his birth. Things would be better, “Big Little Lies” is beginning to imply, if Jane spent more time on Jane and less on Ziggy.
Of course, there’s much more to the show than a simplistic message about parenthood. Indeed, its moments of realism often veer, for story’s sake, into exaggerated, almost campy, noir— frequently flickering back and forth, for instance, from images of pissed-off-mommies to knives and other implements of danger.
This mom fight’s gonna get deadly, it reminds us. (Both victim and perpetrator are still unknown halfway through the series.) But of course, that’s the gift of the best scary and funny television shows—and “Big Little Lies” is both: They seize on a kernel of truth and add grotesque dimensions, lengthening and playing with the real shadows we cast.