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Series / Big Little Lies

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Big Little Lies is an HBO drama series created by David E. Kelley, based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty.

Set in Monterey, California, the series follows the lives of three struggling women who become entangled in a murder investigation: alpha mom Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Stepford smiler Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and young mother Jane (Shailene Woodley). Along the way, alpha bitch Renata (Laura Dern) and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the younger second wife of Madeline's ex-husband, get involved, forcing them into an unexpected alliance.

Also appearing in the show's All-Star Cast includes Alexander Skarsgård as Celeste's husband Perry, Adam Scott as Madeline's second husband Ed, Santiago Cabrera as Madeline's suitor Joseph, and Merrin Dungey as Det. Quinlan, while Jean-Marc Vallée directed the entire first season. Witherspoon and Kidman also serve as executive producers on the series.

Upon its premiere on February 19, 2017, Big Little Lies was a critical favorite and niche hit, ultimately winning five Primetime Emmy Awards for Limited Series, Directing (Vallée), Actress (Kidman), Supporting Actor (Skarsgård), and Supporting Actress (Dern). Because of its success, the series was renewed for a second season in December 2017, despite originally being announced as a seven-episode limited series. Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) was tapped to direct, replacing Vallée (who remained an executive producer), while Meryl Streep joined the cast as Perry's mother Mary Louise, and Denis O'Hare also featured in a recurring role. The second season aired from June to July 2019.

Talk of a third season was frequent after the second season finished airing, but the unexpected death of Vallée in late 2021 meant that any plans for a return likely wouldn't move forward, according to an interview with Kravitz.

Tropes specific to the Big Little Lies series include:

  • Aborted Arc:
    • The fact that Max abused Renata's daughter and threatened her life isn't ever brought up in season 2.
    • Early in season 2, Bonnie's mother has visions of Bonnie drowning. This worries her dad, as such premonitions have come true in the past, but this is never discussed in the last few episodes and nothing comes of this by end of the season.
    • Tori Bachman tries to convince Ed to start an affair with her to not only avenge Joseph Bachman and Madeline but because she thinks it would be "fun". This clearly tempts Ed but she is never seen or mentioned again for the rest of the season after this scene. Ed ultimately decides to remain faithful to Madeline off-screen with no clearly defined reason given for his change of heart, even though — up until the scene where he proposes that he and Madeline renew their wedding vows — he has been nothing but bitter towards her.
    • Madeline throughout season 2 puts a great deal of pressure on Abigail to go to college; something she has no interest in but this is never given closure by the end of the season.
    • Detective Quinlan throughout season 2 seems to be spying on the Monterey Five to intimidate them and to find evidence that they pushed Perry but it's never made clear whether she was actually following them and sabotaging their lives or if her appearances are simply coincidences. Ultimately, she doesn't do anything in the series other than make the Monterey Five paranoid and the season ends with Bonnie confessing to pushing Perry on her own with no involvement from Detective Quinlan.
    • So was Celeste bruising herself or not? Was it from the aggressive sex? If it was, how was she finding so many people willing to be that aggressive just hanging about?
  • Adaptation Deviation:
    • Among the most significant deviations from the book is Madeline and Ed's marriage. In the series, Madeline has an affair and their marriages lacks much passion, while the book alludes to no such problems. note 
    • Bonnie and Nathan were Happily Married in the book (much to Madeline's chagrin) but in Season 2, Bonnie leaves Nathan and admits she never loved him.
    • The book ends with Bonnie confessing to Perry's manslaughter and getting a light sentence. In the series, the group lies to protect her and angst ensues.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Because the first season ended with the book fully adapted, everything from the second season onwards is unique to the series, including Meryl Streep's character visiting Monterey and living with Celeste's family to investigate her son's death.
    • Also, Renata's role is bigger and slightly more heroic, as she is there when the murder happens and is treated as a member of the group.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Renata's husband is very loving in the series, while he's barely there in the book and it's revealed he cheated on her for a long time with the French maid Juliette. However, this gets subverted in Season 2 as he not only breaks the law, getting Renata in deep legal trouble, but also loses all their money, and cheats on her with Juliette.
    • Bonnie's dad was abusive in the book, while he was limitedly helpful to his daughter in the show, where it's revealed that her mother was abusive.
  • Adaptational Nationality: With the change from Australia to America, everyone except Celeste becomes American.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • No mention is made of Perry's mother being abusive in the book. Here, she abused him physically and emotionally after the death of his brother.
    • Bonnie's mother. In the book, Bonnie's father is an abusive alcoholic; here, it's her mother.
  • Adapted Out: Madeline and Ed had a son named Fred in the novel, who doesn't exist in the television series.
  • Age Lift: The kids are first-graders rather than kindergarteners and Abigail is sixteen instead of fourteen in the series.
  • The Alcoholic: The series implies that Madeline is one, which isn't hard to see, since she's shown in nearly every scene drinking anything alcohol and gets absolutely smashed during the final episode.
  • All Abusers Are Male: Subverted in the second season, where Bonnie's mom is revealed to be abusive, as was Mary Louise.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Season 2 ends with the main characters assembled outside the Carmel Police Department, apparently to come clean about how Perry died, and walking toward the building entrance.
  • Bait-and-Switch: In Season 2, the show leads us to believe that Bonnie will put her mother out of her misery when she gets the chance. After one scene where her father has left the two of them alone in Bonnie's room, we see him return and stop at the door, looking straight ahead. The answer shot shows us Bonnie snuggling with her mother.
    • In the season finale, Bonnie begins what seems to be a confession to her husband that she caused Perry's death, who has noticed that something's bothering her. Instead, her secret is that she doesn't love him anymore, and probably never did to begin with.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: How Jane's friendship with Madeline started by driving Madeline and Chloe to school when Madeline twisted her ankle.
  • Bitch Slap: Celeste to Mary Louise.note 
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: We have the blonde Reese Witherspoon playing Madeline, the brunette Shailene Woodley playing Jane, and the redheaded Nicole Kidman playing Celeste.
  • Cast Full of Rich People: The story is about rich Monterey, California suburban moms whose priorities initially seem to be their wealthy families and their children's private-school activities. Their fashion and beautiful homes are given much focus by the Scenery Porn. Middle-class single mom Jane acts as the Penny Among Diamonds.
  • Canon Foreigner: Joseph Bachman is an invention of the series. As is Mary Louise.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Tom, who ended season 1 starting a relationship with Jane, seems to have been erased from the show come season 2, where Jane is instead single and interested in a coworker of hers at the aquarium.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • Jane's rapist, Perry, uses the name "Saxon Banks" in the book and the series. This is revealed to be his cousin's name in the book, but they are Unrelated in the Adaptation and so the usage of the Saxon Banks of Monterey name turns out to be a total example of this.
    • Jane moving to Monterey. In the book Perry tells her he thinks about buying a house in Monterey, which is why she is searching for him in this town. In the show, she seems to just pop up at random.
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • Juliette, the Kleins' nanny. She's introduced briefly in the series, but a subplot from the book (where she's sleeping with several of the fathers) doesn't appear.
    • Her role is somewhat expanded in season two when she reveals that she's been sleeping with Mr. Klein.
  • Disappeared Dad: Jane tells the others Ziggy's father isn't involved. He never was in fact, as they weren't really ever together.
  • Disney Villain Death: Bonnie in the chaos of the struggle runs forward and pushes Perry down the flight of damaged concrete stairs, causing him to fall and be impaled as a result.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: Played with. When Celeste hits her husband, she's never the one who initiates the violence and it can be argued that it's defensive. While Renata destroying her husband's things and then hitting him when he tries to stop her would ordinarily be a real form of abuse, the circumstances make it anything but a straight example, as her husband had put her through a Humiliation Conga that began with him being arrested in public for financial crimes, finding out that in said crimes he lost the fortune she's largely responsible for building thus throwing them into bankruptcy, had been having an affair with their daughter's nanny, then when selling all of his personal belongings specifically striking a deal that would allow him to hold on to them, and then cracking a joke about his affair when Renata calls him out on how unfair that is. It's only after all of that she finally lashes out physically.
  • Driving Question: Throughout season one, the questions are "Who was murdered, and who did it?" Both first asked in the pilot, and definitively answered in the season finale.
  • Dysfunction Junction: As Bonnie puts it, everyone's got baggage.
    • Madeline is still hurt that Nathan left her but is now playing the part of a loving husband and father to Bonnie, Abigail, and Skye. Her marriage to Ed is a little strained, compounded by the reveal that she had an affair, and she's dealing with Abigail's distance from her.
    • Celeste puts on a Happy Marriage Charade but is in a destructive romance with her abusive husband Perry, who micromanages her social interactions and doesn't want her returning to work.
    • Jane hasn't properly processed her rape and now has to deal with more drama upon moving to Monterey.
    • Bonnie is from an abusive household.
  • The End... Or Is It?: The show originally ended like this, with Madeline, Bonnie, Celeste, Jane, and Renata sharing a beach play date together, bonded by their experience with Perry and moving on with their lives, however, a binocular shot of the group (and Detective Quinlan telling colleagues about her suspicions during interrogations) implies that the police are still monitoring their actions, but the series renewal (and the casting of Meryl Streep) confirmed that the story is not yet over.
  • Everybody Did It: Perry started attacking Celeste which caused Jane, Madeline, and Renata to start attacking him in retaliation before Bonnie delivered the fatal push.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Jane in flashbacks has longer hair. In the present, she has a shoulder length, stereotypical 'mom haircut'.
  • Extremely Protective Child: Josh and Max promise to protect their widowed mother, Celeste, when their grandmother, Mary-Louise, wants custody of them, and in the Season 2 finale, they demonstrate how, by showing a video of Perry abusing her.
  • Fan Disservice: The series has lots of this, despite starring Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley; there's an intentionally creepy and often physically violent tone to Celeste's Fanservice scenes. And Jane's butt gets an airing as Perry's raping her.
  • Fauxshadow: Season 2 had many hints that one of the five, possibly Bonnie, would drown by the end. But that didn't happen, to the consternation of many fans.note 
  • Fire-Forged Friends: The first season ends with the women sharing a play date at the beach together, bonded by their experience with Perry, especially Madeline and Bonnie settling their differences.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • An episode opens with the sounds of Celeste and Perry's violent lovemaking coming out through the air vents. This shows that Max must have picked up on it that way.
    • This exchange from the first episode after Madeline offers to help Jane look for a job, and implies that anyone in the town would have done the same for any newcomer.
      Jane: You're so nice.
      Madeline: [casually] This is Monterey. We pound people with nice!
      Celeste: [shrugs] To death.
  • Gossipy Hens: The interview segments from each episode are made up of these talking about the protagonists, from the school principal to the parents of their children's classmates.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: Celeste and Perry appear like a happily married, wealthy, in-love California couple with two kids and a beautiful house. He hits her in private.
  • Heel–Face Turn: After getting smacked by Jane, Renata realises just how petty she's been. By the finale, she's with the other women protecting Celeste.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • While Renata isn't helping the Kleins' situation by smashing some of Gordon's model trains and other collectibles with a baseball bat, since many are rare and he has sold them to a collector so he can keep them in the house, she's right to be angry since this was extremely insensitive on her husband's part given that most of their problems are entirely his fault and shes had to give up a lot of their former lifestyle.
    • Mary-Louise is a total monster, but she has a point that the Ambien-addled Celeste who blacks out repeatedly is not a great parental support. (Although this also makes Mary-Louise a massive Hypocrite, given that she was a much worse mother.)
  • Leitmotif: Played with. Every time Celeste is listening to music by herself, it's "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" by Irma Thomas.
    You can blame me
    Try to shame me
    And still I'll care for you
    You can run around
    Even put me down
    And I'll be there for you
    The world may think I'm foolish
    They can't see you like I can
    Oh, but anyone who knows what love is
    Will understand.
  • Loophole Abuse: How Jane finds out the truth about Amabella's assault. She realizes Ziggy knows the truth but isn't coming forward, even to clear his own name, because Amabella is scared of her attacker, and Ziggy promised he wouldn't tell. He's too young to understand why the adults absolutely need to know who hit Amabella; he just cares that he made a promise, and, like Amabella, he's convinced she'll get beat up again if anyone tattles. Jane takes advantage of his naivete by saying that he never promised he wouldn't point out the attacker, therefore he can look at a photo of his class and indicate who it is without breaking his promise. Ziggy agrees, and points to Max in the photo.
  • Mercy Kill: Averted; while Bonnie talks about euthanizing her mother, and even imagines smothering her with a pillow, she never actually does.
  • Nature Versus Nurture: Discussed at length by Jane in the series, who fears that Ziggy will end up just like his father, her rapist. The show comes down on the side of nurture. Although he and Ziggy have the same father, Max was actually the one hitting Amabella, because he witnessed his father's violence towards his mother, Celeste. Celeste also ruminates on this even before she learns that Max is the one who was bullying Amabella. In "Tell-Tale Hearts," she catches her boys getting aggressive with each other and shoves Max back, yelling that he will "not be like him", thus begging the question of whether she's referring to nature or nurture. It's made clear in the Season Two finale that she's come down on the side of nurture as she tells Mary-Louise that she (Mary) very well knows that abusers don't just *become* abusers.
  • Product Placement: Actually averted in a few conspicuous ways.
    • During the many visits to Starbucks, the company's mermaid logo is either conveniently blocked or blurred in the background, even though you can still tell from the barista's green aprons and the wall shelving that it's the coffee chain.
    • When you see Maddie at the wheel, the three shields of the Buick logo are never in focus.
    • But played straight with Celeste driving ... the four linked Audi rings are in shapr focus.
    • Season 2 has Jane in Monterey Bay Aquarium apparel for her new job with their sea kelp ring logo clear in every shot.
  • Promoted to Opening Credits: A variation. Laura Dern was put in the And Starring billing in Season 1. After Meryl Streep became to new big name attached to the show, she was moved to being billed behind Shailene Woodley.
  • Race Lift:
    • Bonnie, described as fair-skinned in the book, is played by Zoë Kravitz in the series.
    • Also a minor example with Madeline, who's revealed to have Native American ancestry in the show, something not in the book.
  • Retcon: No mention is made of Jane knowing Perry's marital status when he raped her and, if she had, surely it would have ruled out the gay Saxon Banks completely? However, in Season 2, she angsts over "hooking up with a married guy".
  • Same Character, But Different: Josh is the Evil Twin in Season 1, and abuses Amabella and Max, but between Season 1 and 2, he hasn't just Taken A Level In Kindness, but his violence is never mentioned again, and Renata and Celeste let him be around Amabella with no issues.
  • Scenery Porn: Much attention is given to the gorgeous California coast.
  • Sequel Hook: Despite Season 2 ending with the Monterey Five turning themselves in, it still leaves quite a bit opened with each woman's arc for the series to continue despite that. Also, whether or not they face any prison time due to Perry being abusive not only being proven, but the evidence likely leading to supporting what actually happened to him too, the truth becoming public means there's still bound to be a wide reaction to it too though.
  • Setting Update: A slightly unusual example in that the setting is not changed because of a difference in time, but rather of location. The book is set in a fictional town outside of Sydney, Australia, while the series changes this to Monterey, California. Naturally, this involves some Accent Adaptation.
  • Television Geography: The locals-only drinking game for the series is a sip every time another town on the Central Coast is used for Monterey, a shot every time the viewer has to ask why these kids are going to a Monterey school while living in Big Sur (1-2 school districts away), and a drink every time the show seems to really be better suited to being set in Carmel or Pebble Beach.
  • Time Skip: Season two's events are a year after season one.
  • Unrelated in the Adaptation: In the book, Jane's presumed rapist Saxon Banks, and her actual rapist Perry were cousins. Here, they are not related at all, leading to a Contrived Coincidence.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The first-grade teacher Ms. Barnes pretty much kicks off most of the plot in the first episode by making the ill-thought-out decision to ask Amabella to publicly name the kid who attacked her. She spends the rest of the series as The Atoner trying to fix the mess she started.
  • Villain Has a Point: Mary Louise's custody petition may be motivated purely by revenge, but her concerns about the effects Celeste's issues might have on her sons are on point.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: At the dinner in Bonnie's house, Madeline takes a bad reaction the shrimp and vomits it up three times. The final time, on Bonnie.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Tom, in Season 1. Despite a Ship Tease with Jane, he disappears and isn't seen again, with the ladies going to a new cafe, without explanation.
    • Tori and Joseph Bachman. Joseph isn't seen again, and even more bizarrely, Tori shows up for two scenes to ask Ed to have an affair with her, having had a breast enlargement.
  • Workplace-Acquired Abilities: Celeste's past as a lawyer doesn't come into play until the Season 2 finale when she invokes the fact that her law license is still valid in order to personally question Mary Louise at the custody hearing.