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Here’s my confession: after twenty-five years of working in television, most of it bores me. At least, network television, where I spent my career, seems hopelessly dated to me. The necessity of crafting compelling act breaks to lead into commercials feels so artificial. Even though I sort of liked This Is Us, for example, I couldn’t finish the season. Each time I’d get to an act break, I’d roll my eyes. I felt like I knew what was going to occur before it did, and most of the time I was right. Also, it happens to be one of the most manipulative shows I’ve ever watched, but that’s another story.
The tyranny of the act break is perhaps something you can only fully understand when you’ve spent too many years hectoring writers and producers into crafting a compelling one. “Do we need to put a button on that scene?” one producer I knew used to ask. Most of the time, the answer was, “Yes. Yes you do.” What the act break forces you to do is to create false jeopardy that can often upend characterizations if not done right.
But this isn’t about This is Us or even about act breaks in network television. It’s about Big Little Lies and why I didn’t know what was going to happen. And this was mostly because of the characters. Not having act breaks also helped.
At every turn, these women surprised me. Once you think you’ve got them pegged, they do something unexpected that makes you reconsider. We are introduced to Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Martha Mackenzie in the first minutes of the first episode. We feel we know her. She is the quintessential Reese Witherspoon character–brittle and edgy in the nicest possible way, a grown-up Tracy Flick, if you will. But then she goes and surprises us by being emotional and vulnerable in ways we never expect. She kept me guessing.
Nicole Kidman has never been a favorite of mine. Chalk it up to her too-tight and too-immobile face, courtesy, some say, of too much Botox and too many fillers. But man, did she win me over here! Kidman’s character, Celeste Wright was, for all intents and purposes, perfect. Perfect face, perfect hair, perfect body, perfect marriage, perfect kids. But her ability to show us the pain behind her perfection was sublime. Kidman’s performance was one of the best I’ve seen this year, and if she doesn’t get an Emmy I will be very surprised. She was that good.
And a shout out to Alexander Skarsgärd as Perry Wright, the all-too perfect husband, and a perfect foil for Celeste’s perfection. He, too, took us inside his character’s damaged psyche in a way that I had never seen before. I never felt for him, but I did understand him in ways I never expected.
Also, take Laura Dern as Renata Klein. Bitchy career woman, tightly strung and over-protective mother, right? She announces herself as such from the get-go, telling us that she is now on the board of Google. She is a type if there ever was one. But without so much as batting an eye, she upends all those stereotypes and finds a way to make her character both vulnerable and empathetic. How’d she do that?
Having struggled to cast children in my day, I was stunned by the amazing young actors in this show. It’s awfully hard to find children who are subtle and don’t mug their way through a performance. These children proved that it can be done. Iain Armatage who played Ziggy Chapman was of particular note for his heartbreakingly vulnerable and truthful performance. No surprise that he was snapped up for the Young Sheldon spin-off of The Big Bang Theory.
If I had one performance that thrilled me a bit less, that would be Shailene Woodley as Jane “no middle name” Chapman. As a character with a secret, she came off as a bit one-note to me. Wan was the word I used to describe her. Maybe it was a choice, but acting wise, I felt she was in over her head, even if she was a useful foil to the Witherspoon and Kidman characters. Though she never detracted, she didn’t add a lot for me.
Without any spoilers, I will also say that sense of women supporting each other was powerful. Though the Greek chorus of Otter Bay denizens seems to actively work against this, nonetheless it doesn’t succeed in destroying the feeling of camaraderie and genuine affection among our three leads. And by the end of the series, that camaraderie has spread its tentacles to draw in many more of the characters. It is sublimely satisfying.
A note about the music–Big Little Lies is brilliantly scored. From the opening chords of Cold Little Heart by Michael Kiwanuka, you are firmly ensconced in the world. And after each episode, I found myself Googling the episode to find out what one or another of the songs was. It’s no surprise that there is a soundtrack for the series.
Maybe the first wave of interest in this series is gone, but if you let Big Little Lies pass you by, I suggest you rectify that mistake and take a look now. I only regret that I no longer have new episodes to look forward to on Sunday nights.
This Is Us image courtesy of NBC, all others courtesy of HBO
Roseanne Leto is a 25-year veteran of the TV industry. She has been head of East Coast Programming and Development for CBS, an Associate in Programs at NBC, and a Producer of many TV movies. When it comes to TV, she is picky, picky, picky, and despite her years in TV, Charles Dickens is still her bae. Follow her on Twitter @roxlet
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