Five Years Later, I Can’t Stop Thinking About The Monterey Five
Big Little Lies: Why I Love It, And Why I Still Hope for More, Part 1: The Original Limited Series
If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that every five or six reviews I seem to put in a plug for yet another season of Big Little Lies even though with each passing year it becomes more and more unlikely. Reese Witherspoon and Adam Scott are now leads on other series (both were nominated for Emmys this year for them), Nicole Kidman seems to be engaged in another season for Nine Perfect Strangers, Ian Armitage is playing the young version of Sheldon Cooper, David E. Kelley is busier than he’s ever been (mostly designing projects for Nicole Kidman) and Jean Marc-Vallee, the man who directed all of Season 1 has recently passed away.
So why I do I constantly push for a third season for this series, particularly considering that I’m in the decided minority that the second was worth watching, if not as brilliant as the first? Well, I just finished rewatching both seasons of the series to try and see just why I loved it so much, and why I think that there are more stories to tell about the Monterey Five. And in order to this, I think I have to tell this story in two parts: first about the explosive phenomena that the original limited series was, and why I still think the second season was brilliant television, and how that leads to my overall conclusion that there are more stories to tell.
First of all, a fundamental review: when Big Little Lies exploded on to the scene in February and March of 2017 its greatness was realized by audiences and awards shows everywhere. That said, as someone who has studied the Emmys for more than twenty years, I think we’ve forgotten by now just how remarkable its success at the 2017 Emmys was. Because the competition that year was among the very best in among the ones that the Emmys have given for Limited Series.
Among the major nominated series were The Night Of an exceptional crime thriller which shot Riz Ahmed to stardom and featured great work by John Turturro and the late Michael K. William, the third season of Fargo which showed Ewan McGregor doing some of his best work as brothers engaged in a fight to the death — and beyond, and Feud: Bette And Joan (which itself was supposed to be the start of a new anthology series by Ryan Murphy) that featured two Academy Awards actresses playing two Academy Award-winning actresses (Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, in case you’ve forgotten.). All three of these series would have dominated the Emmys in other years, and all of them dominated categories that the cast of Big Little Lies was in: Lange, Sarandon and Carrie Coon were competing against Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman for Best Actress; Williams and Camp from The Night of, Stanley Tucci and Alfred Molina from Feud, and David Thewlis from Fargo were up against Alexander Skarsgard; and Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern were facing off against Judy Davis and Jackie Hoffman from Feud. Throw in the fact that Felicity Huffman and Regina King were competing in the Actress and Supporting Actress categories for the third season of American Crime — King had won the last two years in that category — and two facts become clear: the nominees in all the acting categories were among the best in recent Emmy history, if not all time, and how astounding it was that Big Little Lies utterly dominated Emmy night in almost every category.
So why did Emmy voters fall in love with Lies so much? Skipping the level of plot, which by now you have to have to know (and if you don’t I have no intention of spoiling it — yet) look at the cast. Five of the greatest actresses in history were at the center of it. Kidman, Witherspoon and Dern had already been established as such (though Dern’s Oscar was still two years in the future, she’d already won two Emmys), Kravitz would show she was their equal (though admittedly not until Season 2) and Woodley had already proven it. Anyone who had seen her in The Descendants knew it, and she had a successful career as a child actress behind her. (Then again, so did all four of her co-stars. Hmm.)
Now consider that the man who adapted the series was David E. Kelley. Kelley had been one of the most dominant TV showrunners of the 1980s and 1990s but by the middle of the 2000s had gotten a reputation of going through the motions. Boston Legal was increasingly ham-fisted by the end of Season 2, and Harry’s Law while successful initially was basically cut and paste from any of the previous dramas. By the middle of the 2010s, Kelley was considered a relic not at all fitting to the era of Peak TV. I still don’t know what specifically drew Kelley to Big Little Lies — there’s nothing in it that fit his repertoire of a ripped from the headline legal series he spent his career in. There was one thing about that Kelley was good at: it was dominated by strong female characters. Going as far back as L.A. Law, that had always been Kelley’s stock-in-trade, whether it was for twentyish women like on Ally McBeal, or women of a certain age, like Candice Bergen’s and Kathy Bates’ characters on Boston Legal and Harry’s Law, respectively.
And he adapted the hell out of it. Lianne Moriarty’s novel is a work of art, no one will deny that, but having seen the series, can you imagine it being set anywhere but Monterey? It wasn’t just the practically castles that all these women seemed to live in, or the level of wealth they seemed to traffic in; there’s no way you see this novel work in any place other than California. Reading the novel after the fact (I didn’t want to know in advance any spoilers) I acknowledge how great it is as a foundation and how well Moriarty handled the characters. But if this novel had been adapted for Australian or British Television (and I can imagine that happening) it would never have registered on anyone’s radar, certainly not the Emmys.
Perhaps the best parts of the limited series are how he managed to expand so much of what I just don’t think could have worked if had been taken more literal. In the novel Ed, Madeline’s husband is a bald, almost milquetoast accountant who barely gets out from his wife’s shadow. Played by Adam Scott (who never got the credit he deserved for his work — what else is new?) he came across as someone who felt neutered by so much of Madeline’s craziness, and who was more than willing to punch back against how she seemed to be bitter than Nathan got it all. I particularly liked the way he decided that Nathan and he went at each other throughout the season; Nathan thinking Ed was a wimp, and Ed thinking Nathan was a jerk. (If there is a flaw in the book and series, it’s that Nathan never comes across as much of a real character, not someone that Madeline should have desired and certainly not someone Bonnie would end up with.)
The best decision was to greatly expand the character of Renata. In the book, she is mainly source of antagonism to Madeline, but gets few scenes of her own. In the series, both Kelley and Vallee decide to flesh Renata out a lot. I imagine most of this was due to Dern’s presence as the character — you don’t take one of the greatest actresses ever and give her no dimensions. But it would have been easy to take all of the flashpoints that Renata has throughout the series — and let’s face it, they are some of the highpoints — and just let that be all of her. Instead, Kelley makes us see that Renata is as much a real, worried mom as Jane, Madeline and Celeste are; more so, because she knows that if she’s wrong about her assumptions of Ziggy, then someone is abusing her daughter and there’s nothing she can do to help her. By going further and making Renata the only one of the mothers who has a full time job at the start, she makes the division between Celeste, who’s given up her career, and Madeline, who is essentially living through her children, more real. There’s a scene in the fourth episode where Celeste, having won a legal victory for Madeline, breaks down in her car and says that being a mother is not enough. By showing Renata’s struggles to balance work and family, Kelley shows that working and being a mother isn’t all it’s cracked to be either. I’m kind of stunned that in my official picks for the Emmys that years, I thought that King and Woodley deserved it more than Dern did; in hindsight, she was the obvious choice almost from day one.
But for all the credit that we give the leads in this series — and they deserve a lot, to be sure — we don’t give nearly enough for the work that all of the young actors did. Iain Armitage shot to superstardom within months of this as the lead for Young Sheldon, and deservedly so, considering how well he has the nuances of Jim Parsons down. But his work in Big Little Lies was one of the high points of the series. We learn the secret of Ziggy’s existence in the third episode, and it’s absolutely horrifying. Once we do, then we know both why Jane is so determined to believe in public her son isn’t capable of violence and yet so uncertain in private that he might be. Armitage plays him as someone who does shout out at inappropriate times just long enough to make you think there might be something wrong with him, and someone who has lived his entire life not knowing the secrets the mother has about his birth. When he reveals at the end of the first season, the secret he’s been keeping since he enrolled in the school, there’s a genuine sense of guilt because he fundamentally feels that he has an obligation to protect certain people.
And as good as Armitage is, all the other children particularly Darby Camp and the Caronvetti twins as the Wrights children are as good. If I have a complaint about the second season, it’s that much of the focus of it went away from the children except Ziggy, Nicholas and Alex. I would like to have spent more time with them in second grade (given the few scenes I saw, they were dealing with their own challenges)
I have spent much of the review dealing with the hidden pleasure of the series because I think everything else that is superb about it — the work of Witherspoon, Kidman and Skarsgard, the latter two who deservedly won Emmys; the brilliance of the direction particularly on Trivia Night itself; the secrets that are revealed in the last ten minutes about who got killed and who killed that person — were discussed to death at the time and really don’t need to be analyzed any further. All in all, it was one of the best adaptations of a novel into a limited series arguably of all time, and even though the series basically stopped fifty pages before the book really ended, I thought its ending was perfect. And obviously when I heard that where was going to be a second season of Big Little Lies, my first reaction was: what the hell is going on? Why mess with perfection?
In tomorrow’s article, I’ll explain just why I came to change my mind very quickly on the second season, and why even now, I still think that are more stories to tell in Monterrey.