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Have you ever watched a character in a film or TV show and thought, I know the real life version? Maybe you even recognized yourself – warts and all? That is exactly how I felt when I flicked on Big Little Lies.
The show, which is HBO’s newest drama, is based on Liane Moriarty’s best selling novel of the same name. It stars three incredible actresses: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley, as moms who all have kids starting first grade.
Witherspoon plays powerhouse Madeline — a SAHM who admits she relishes making the career mothers feel guilty. Clearly bored by her “perfect” life and filled with a rage as big as the ocean in front of her house, she delights in arguments, telling her friends over coffee, “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”
Her nemesis is Renata, played by a wickedly funny Laura Dern, who only opens her mouth to utter things like “Just getting my Hamilton tickets, seen it four times,” or “I just joined the board at PayPal. What was I thinking adding another thing to my life?” Cue faux laughter and tight bitter smiles from all the other moms.
Madeline takes newcomer Jane, a single parent (played by Woodley), under her wing and when Renata’s daughter accuses Jane’s son of hurting her — in a slightly contrived scene where the whole class is made to listen — Madeline immediately takes Jane’s side in the matter. War ensues. When Jane’s son Ziggy doesn’t get an invite to Renata’s kid’s party, Madeline makes sure none of the class will go at all!
Meanwhile, Kidman is the mild mannered Celeste who has the perfect younger husband, the perfect twin boys, the perfect beachside house. Except underneath the bright shiny surface lies a darker story of a marriage where sexual intimacy goes hand in hand with violent fights. The story that threads all these seemingly inconsequential tales together is that there has been a murder — although we don’t know yet who has died. The townsfolk act like a Greek chorus, peppering the drama with their insider knowledge of the women and how these bitchy one-upmanship games ultimately lead to a death at the town’s gala fundraiser. If you love gossip, this is the show for you.
Being a TV scriptwriter myself, I’m primed to pick holes in contrived, woolly stories, with predictable characters and not enough plot to drive a series — but I was hooked! It isn’t just the incredible performances by these bonafide A-listers that make it binge-worthy, it is also hugely relatable. Yes, I must confess — I live in an area that is exactly like Monterey, California, albeit without the glorious ocean (or a murder). But the rest — the competitiveness, the obsession with wealth and status, the chasm between stay-at-home moms and career moms — it is all right on my doorstep. And it’s probably on yours.
Critics who have argued that the women and their husbands are clichés are missing the point. The very reason it hit home to me is because it all felt so awkwardly familiar. Who doesn’t know a mom who is a huge incessant gossip, involving herself in every petty squabble? Reese’s character wasn’t the only familiar face to me. Recently my best friend, a writer and single mom, confessed to feeling like an outsider in our neighborhood. At a dinner party a few weeks ago another mom asked her where she lived and shockingly replied, “You live in a flat? But you’re a writer! I thought you would have a 5-bedroom mansion!” It is eerily too easy to already make the connection between the mom stereotypes that appear in Big Little Lies and the ones that show up in my real life.
The series begins by introducing viewers to the public faces of these women – the masks they wear to get through their daily lives. Then little by little, as each episode progresses, we get to peel away the onion and find out what lies beneath. The moral (if there is one) of the tale, is that one can never know just what goes on behind closed doors — that nothing is ever perfect, no matter how much it seems that way.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely felt resentful, perhaps even jealous of the gilded easy lives the moms around me have. They don’t appear to have the same worries that I do — or perhaps, like in Big Little Lies, they do — they are just better at hiding it.
According to research by the National Childbirth Trust, almost a third of women in the UK finding that returning to work after having a child isn’t financially worthwhile. So, we now suddenly have an army of women who find themselves leaving their ambition at the door and tending to their offspring instead. No wonder it makes them kind of loopy. I’ve been there! Perhaps this is why I was so forgiving of Madeline’s need to constantly “win” at everything — even something as trivial as a yoga class, attended by her ex-husband’s new wife.
As the pressure cooker boils little by little, petty jealousies and unresolved issues gaining weight and momentum, it is unsurprising that amongst the PTA meetings and gala nights, the dinner parties and drinks, that tragedy strikes. But if you want to know how, you’ve got to keep watching.
I know I will be!