Rich People Being Bad
The thrill of “Big Little Lies”
HBO’s Big Little Lies is a show about very rich women in Monterey, bored with their lives and maybe each other. There has been a murder, though four episodes in and we’re still not sure who did it or who was killed. Everyone lives in a very nice house overlooking the Pacific and no one seems to communicate. It is, in short, a perfect television show.
Half the fun of the show is watching Reese Witherspoon inhabit a role that she was born to play. The other half is the locations, the interiors, the sumptuous ocean views, the glass houses on big cliffs that turn pink in the sun. There’s no point in being envious only because living in a house like Nicole Kidman’s character Celeste does is likely never going to happen to me or anyone I know.
I appreciate the show for its sly wit and its soapy, sharp, sensibility. It’s the perfect television, a nice meaty hour of intrigue and disaffected bourgeois problems. It’s escapist in the truest sense of the word. But I love the show because of the way money winds its way in and around these women’s lives, operating in ostentatious silence.
The best kinds of TV shows are always about money and who has it, who doesn’t, and what people would do with it. Money is what makes the world of Big Little Lies go ‘round. One mother, Jane(Shailene Woodley), lives in a house that looks very nice but is clearly meant to be shabby. She has the least. The second-richest mother, Celeste(Nicole Kidman), has the saddest life; her husband is a terribly icy, dangerous man with a temper and her existence in her modernist glass cube plunked in the side of a cliff is akin to being a specimen under glass. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline is somewhere in the middle; a recent episode showed her house from the front, small and unassuming, but it opens up to a giant deck that looks out over the ocean. Laura Dern’s character, Renata, is a live wire, all sinew and barely-simmering rage. She is extraordinarily wealthy — she’s the only mom that works — and her house is a stark white cube with a cinematic view that looks so perfect that I thought it was a soundstage.
The houses are real, by the way, though located in Malibu and not not Monterey. The most expensive house is $14.8 million; the cheapest is a $520,000 and was only used for exterior shots.
Though the show rarely discusses money outright, that’s only because there’s really no need. It’s apparent in everything. Class is rarely discussed but you see it anyway. It’s there in the houses, the names of the children, the cut of Reese Witherspoon’s tasteful Dolce and Gabbana blouses. The largely-silent-markers of class that exist in the everyday are louder and more overt on television. Seeing how these subtleties manifest is part of the fun.
“I was just thinking about how lucky we are to live here,” Madeline says at one point, clutching a big glass of red to her chest, gazing out at the ocean. She’s right; they are lucky. So are we. Watching rich people be very, very bad is fun.
Support The Billfold