It’s clear why many movie stars want to work in television. The stigma of working in the medium is all but gone at this point, and Peak TV has led to peak opportunity for the types of projects that used to be a $50 million character film but now exist as 10-episode limited series. (Seriously, if Michael Clayton were greenlit now, it would be as a limited-run series on Hulu.) Actors get to stretch their muscles, networks get to promote these actors in order to drum up viewership, and audiences get to see star wattage on the small screen. Win win all around.
In the case of Big Little Lies, which premieres on HBO on February 19th, it makes all the sense in the world why the onscreen talent was attracted to this piece, and why HBO would be interested in doing business with them. What’s less clear is why HBO would be particularly interested in making this story with this talent. There’s absolutely room in the pay cable landscape for a soapy drama that lets actors like Reese Witherspoon chew scenery like a glutton. But Big Little Lies features far too many shortcuts and too little self-awareness to pull off this tale of Sad Rich White People Gazing Sadly At The Ocean.
Let’s establish this up front: an HBO soap opera is something I’m definitely into. One of my favorite shows of this decade could have been exactly that: AMC’s Mad Men. (HBO, like just about every network, passed on that one. Oops.) The phrase “soap opera” gets a bad rep and has an unfair stigma, when all it really signifies is a heightened drama involving supposedly “small” stakes. I hate that “small” and “emotional” are used so interchangeably when talking about soap operas, but that’s really what people mean when they say a show has small stakes. Just because a building isn’t burning or a virus hasn’t been unleashed or a planet isn’t about to be destroyed doesn’t mean there aren’t huge stakes at play in soap operas. You can’t tell me Peggy Olsen’s happiness isn’t more important than the fate of the multiverse on The Flash.
This isn’t about inherently favoring small shows over those with a larger canvas. Indeed, combine both and you have my favorite type of show! Programs that depict a large universe but take the time to make us care about the people trying to navigate their way through it litter my all-time favorite programs. Soap operas are no different than any other genre of television, in that execution is paramount above all else. In fact, the bar may be even higher than for those with huge vistas filled with computer-generated images. Not to knock any CGI artists, but it’s more difficult to create a three-dimensional character than a convincing space battle. If you didn’t care about Starbuck on Battlestar: Galactica, then it didn’t matter a lick if the dogfights in the vacuum of space looked photrealistic.
I’m mentioning all this because Big Little Lies had a much harder hurdle to clear than may be initially evident, but unfortunately stumbles almost immediately out of the block and never truly recovers. The primary offender here is tone: It’s never clear if the show is satirizing the lives of its inhabitants or trying to ennoble them, which causes some tonal whiplash when the show’s seedier elements emerge. Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern all seem to be in different shows, rather than being different characters within the same universe. The puzzle pieces never quite fit, which could be interesting if the show itself were not an ill-fitting puzzle.
That’s right: the show is above all else a whodunit, which means we get a lot of flashforwards to the aftermath of a heinous crime potentially perpetrated by or inflicted upon one of the many protagonists in this show. The show intentionally tries to paint these people as stereotypes before revealing hidden depths underneath, but we’re trained as television audiences at this point to understand that this will happen around minute forty-two in each hour-long episode. The show does a decent enough job making each episode a stand-alone piece of entertainment unto itself while building towards the inevitable reveal of the central crime later in the season. But the characters aren’t original enough to spark any interest in their fates. If you don’t care about these people when they are alive, then you certainly won’t care about them when they are dead.
Talking more about the show itself risks giving away some of its twists, which many may find engrossing enough that I wouldn’t want to spoil that particular pleasure. It’s a huge bummer, and another chink in HBO’s hour-long drama armor. Game Of Thrones and Westworld are bona fide hits, but insanely expensive ones that HBO can’t replicate without fear of losing money. (See: Vinyl. Or don’t. You probably didn’t anyways, given its ratings.) Limited series like this and The Young Pope help hedge the network’s long-term bets while still pumping out content in the present, but the long-term future of its dramatic programming is murky at best. I would never count HBO out (especially in the half-hour realm, where its roster is still incredibly strong), but the network’s imprint has long ceased guaranteeing quality content. HBO buys some incredible talent with its deep pockets, but lately doesn’t seem sure what to do with them. The result has been a scattershot of shows that occasionally hit the bullseye but more often than not utterly miss the mark.