For anyone who’s had a passing acquaintance with the folkways of upper-middle-class coastal liberals, the tropes of Big Little Lies, the slick, seven-episode murder mystery that recently wrapped up on HBO and is based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 bestselling novel, will be all-too-familiar. The characters in the show—written and produced by David E. Kelley of Ally McBeal fame—are the kind of people you’d expect to be passionately committed to overcoming racism, sexism, and elitism. Doubtless, they’re passionate environmentalists and are in favor of super-strict gun-control laws. They practice yoga religiously and eat local organic food and drink fair-trade coffee. Their precocious offspring are educated in child-centric environments, taught to speak Mandarin from an early age, and have birthday celebrations that would embarrass Louis XIV. (And the male children are usually overdue for a haircut.) These folks live in mansions (sometimes right on the sea), ride around in Mercedes SUVs, and brandish $5,000 French purses. If you happen to find yourself in a high-net-income community on the Atlantic or Pacific, you’ll discover them in their natural habitat and be amazed at the cultural similarities.
Do not, however, cross them or thwart their will in any way, whatsoever. For despite having compassionate, tolerant, and evolved political opinions, they can, under such circumstances, become extremely agitated, and even dangerous; it’s best to walk away.
In Big Little Lies, the habitat in question is Monterey, California. The show was co-produced by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, both of whom star in the impressive female-centric cast. Kidman plays Celeste, a former corporate attorney turned stay-at-home mom. She’s got what seems to be a perfectly Instragrammable life: a gorgeous home, a handsome husband (Alexander Skarsgard), and energetic twin boys. But she also harbors a dark secret: a perverse sexual relationship with her controlling, rage-filled spouse that involves intimidation, violence, and auto-asphyxiation. Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, is the overbearing town busybody, bored with her wimpy second husband and envious of her former husband’s young yoga-goddess wife. She co-produces community theater with an ex-paramour and constantly gets into petty disputes with other Monterey residents. “I love my grudges,” she says. “I tend to them like little pets.” Renata is a third major character in the circle, a Silicon Valley executive played with brittle arrogance by Laura Dern. She is consumed with righteous fury when her first-grade daughter Amabella is attacked by a mystery bully at Otter Bay, the progressive school that the two children attend.
Into this maelstrom steps Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mom with a sweet-natured boy, Ziggy. She has come to Monterey to start over and escape a traumatic past, which, we discover, involves the patrimony of her son, apparently conceived in rape. Jane is of a different economic status than the other Monterey women: she wears beat up skinny jeans and drives a dusty Prius and is first mistaken for a nanny by Renata. Ziggy soon gets blamed—clearly unfairly—for hurting Amabella. This female quartet is at the heart of the show, and of its various mysteries: Who gets murdered at the school fundraiser? (We only know that someone gets murdered.) Who is Ziggy’s father? And who keeps attacking Amabella?
Like most HBO productions, Big Little Lies is well-directed and at times compulsively watchable. An ensemble cast of A-list movie stars, multi-million dollar kitchens, California sun, and a murder mystery, all wrapped in feminist window dressing proved irresistible to critics from many major outlets. The show is at its best, though, when it isn’t so focused on girl power, and instead explores the mean-girl dynamics of Monterey’s upper-income women. My blood ran cold watching Laura Dern’s Alpha-Mom Renata bend over and menace first-grader Ziggy, after he has been accused (falsely) of assaulting her daughter. “Ziggy, do you see her neck? If you ever touch my little girl again, you’re gonna be in big trouble.” Dern’s murderous eyes, fixed on an innocent little boy, reveal just how thin the veneer of civility is in this seemingly paradisiacal community, as does the vicious status battle over who gets invited to her daughter’s birthday party.
When it comes to its male characters, Big Little Lies is much weaker. The men of Monterey represent gradations of masculine failure, a sorry and implausible lot. First, there’s Adam Scott as Ed Mackenzie, a bearded, pasty-faced web designer, who, as Madeline’s second husband, can barely contain his impotent anger at being cuckolded in various ways, including but not limited to his wife’s sexual liaisons. He recognizes that he’s just a “consolation prize” for Madeline after the failure of her marriage to Nathan, but seems unable to do anything about it; he spends a lot of time moping around and creepily leering at other women, including his teenage step daughter. As for Nathan (James Tupper), he’s a vacuous man-child, who delights in bullying Ed, but with no threat of real violence. One gets the sense that he’s mildly bored with adulthood and marking time until his next bike ride or yoga class.
Another poor sap is Tom, the owner of the hippie-chic cafe, where the ladies regularly meet for coffee. After he exhibits one of Big Little Lies’ only examples of male courage—kicking Renata’s obnoxious, bullying husband Gordon out of the cafe after he threatens Jane—he confesses his romantic interest in her. “I’ve actually been trying to figure out a way to impress you for a while now,” he says. “I just haven’t had the chance.” Her response is confusion. “You’re straight?” she asks incredulously, as if decency and courage are unthinkable in a straight man.
But it is Skarsgard’s Perry who’s the top devil at the heart of the show’s depiction of failed masculinity. There he lurks, all Nordic in his intimidating power suits, trying to distract the kids with his scary pretend monster routine. He’s a real monster, in case you haven’t figured it out, and he’s just waiting to turn a corner and pounce on creamy-skinned Celeste and toss her like a rag doll across the gleaming floor of their perfect glass castle. He’s rarely on screen for more than a few moments before he switches from expressing sweet endearments to his wife to abusing her.
This project was conceived in part by world-famous actresses who feel themselves oppressed by Hollywood’s lack of work for older women, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that it so frequently becomes a bash-the-men cartoon. But how oppressed are these global stars, really? Witherspoon says she was sick of “the complete lack of interesting characters for women,” but she’s won Oscars and critical acclaim for playing interesting female characters. Kidman adds that she and Witherspoon “were frustrated that we weren’t being offered roles that had…complexity,” but she, too, has earned an Oscar for portraying none other than feminist icon Virginia Woolf. The notion that these women are somehow martyrs to Hollywood sexism is quite a stretch, to put it mildly.
Big Little Lies seeks to reveal what “toxic masculinity” looks like when the deceptions of relationships and family are at last exposed. In its final sequence, we see in slow-motion the rapture of the children and the women as they frolic on the beach, all the bad men vanquished, the pettiness and meanness of the community healed, and the eternal feminine redeemed. This is a world mostly absent of masculine virtue, and blind to the ideal of what once was known as a gentleman–the man who, as writer and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor says, “Is as polite to tramps as he is to barons, repays all his debts, shows just the right degree of diffidence to his seniors, merriment to his peers…[and] hates hurting people’s feelings,” or as Theodore Roosevelt put it, is as courteous as he is courageous. That such a man doesn’t exist, or has never existed in this fictionalized world of coastal privilege, is the biggest little lie of all.