Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Many Crimes, Lots of Lies

How many series at a time do you watch?  The past several weeks I limited myself to two, commuting, as it were, between Naples, Italy and Monterey, California.  The Naples-set show I watched was Gomorrah, on Netflixand the Monterey one Big Little Lies, on HBO. 

The two served as ideal viewing contrasts.  While Gomorrah does have one important central woman character, it's essentially a male dominated show filled with killing and violence committed outside, in plain sight.  Big Little Lies, needless to say, is women-centered and the whole point of its violence was how it happens behind closed doors, by men to women, and in households and places where people least suspect.  I thoroughly enjoyed Gomorrah, which doesn't even attempt to present one conventionally likable or redeeming character, and look forward to all the nastiness coming in season 2.  

Still, the series that surprised me, I have to say, was Big Little Lies. I haven't read the Liane Moriarity novel it's based on, so I didn't know quite what to expect, but I watched it from its opening week on HBO because the promos for it looked fairly intriguing. I just liked the look of the shots in those previews, all that California coastline eye candy, and the hint of something dark in the story.  And the show has both, the landscape beauty and the darkness, but it's the overall tone that makes it work.  For a story like this to have any chance of succeeding, the sense of perspective has to be exactly right.  I mean, here we are dealing in a world of utter affluence and privilege (for the most part, white privilege); how can every problem these people have not be anything more than a "first world" problem, and who cares about these people anyway living in their expansive houses with magnificent views of the Pacific?  Big Little Lies draws you in with satire and a sense that a lot of what the characters are quibbling about is indeed ridiculous, and then slides into the areas that are no joke no matter what the characters' economic background.  The whodunnit aspect is there but negligible; it's a narrative hook to draw you along while the prime focus is on human behavior.  If you portray that behavior right, with the appropriate sense of distance considering the advantages these people have, you can get to something solid, even universal, and Big Little Lies does get there.  All while being entertaining and funny - not an easy thing to pull off.  It helps that the cast, everyone in it, is at the top of their game.  And that the therapy scenes, done soberly and with verisimilitude, are great.

I do hope, in this case, that they don't do a second season, because where they left off, with the mystery's questions answered and an idyllic image of solidarity among the main characters, is just about perfect. (And even here, the perspective vis a vis the characters' privilege is maintained. Open bottles of white wine for the women on the beach while they play with their kids?  You can't do that at the public beaches I've visited).  In any event, I really liked Big Little Lies, and I admire how it made its points with an easy clarity. Even my 11 year old son, with whom I watched the series, immediately got the point at the climatic moment, laughing at once when one person pushed another. He said to me, "That's so funny.  The white ladies are just standing there and she comes over and does that?"  

Yup.  It sort of comes out of left field but enough clues are provided for the act to make sense.  And it adds a final twist that serves to broadens the scope, just a bit, of this well-told tale.

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