CULTURE & ARTS

To Make Women’s Stories Prestige TV, Just Add A Murder Plot

“Big Little Lies” is an honest portrayal of domestic abuse that also happens to be a thriller.

If you’d heard nothing about “Big Little Lies” beyond blurbs and snippets singing its praises, you might be aware that the HBO show (adapted from a book by Liane Moriarty) poignantly portrays the nuances of domestic abuse. You might know that it’s a smart meditation on school bullying, on the group-think of parenting communities, on relationships between adult women. You might know that it centers on first-world problems, but does so in a way that’s full of feeling.

What you might not know about “Big Little Lies,” unless you’ve seen it or read about it at length, is that the central event that weaves these stories together is a murder, and a police investigation into who committed it. After its satisfying conclusion, the whodunnit aspect of the show is seldom commented on; it’s the quieter, more personal storylines that seem to resonate.

A New York Times review of the recently wrapped-up drama argues that “the show’s empathy was its strength.” Another review on Vox praises the story, writing that its “most riveting moments are the silent ones between women.” HuffPost’s Emma Gray wrote that “at its core, ‘Big Little Lies’ is about the deep, complex and protective connections that can form between women in the face of buried trauma.”

Members of the show’s cast seem to agree. In an interview with Vogue, Nicole Kidman spoke at length about her character’s domestic abuse, and the emotional difficulty of filming those scenes. When asked about the show’s appeal, Kidman complemented the author’s ability to write moving, fully realized characters. “She writes these novels and then she threads in these deeply painful and topical and real emotions and relationships that you get pulled into,” Kidman said.

Again, in an interview with Vulture, Kidman described the complexity of her relationship with Alexander Skarsgård’s character, his “dominance” and “fragility.”

While the conversations around the show ― by viewers and critics and the actors themselves ― have been remarkably nuanced and functioned as jumping-off points for broader conversations about abuse and the stereotype of female pettiness, these themes rarely appear on so-called prestige television. It’s the other, more superficially central aspects of “Big Little Lies” ― the murder, the suspense, the sun-lapped gun in the opening sequence ― that align it with other widely praised shows. And, while those elements of the story are arguably the least interesting, it seems unlikely that the show would’ve been embraced without them.

It’s not accurate to say all prestige TV is the same; you wouldn’t recommend “Westworld” to a “Transparent” fan. But there are tenants to the genre that reappear more than others. In a recent list poking fun at the concept of prestige TV, Vulture lists out the signs you know you’re watching a highly regarded show, including “Darkness,” “What the hell is even happening right now?” “Breasts,” and “The sad man.” A mash-up of these qualities appear in “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “Better Call Saul,” “House of Cards,” and the original prestige show, “The Sopranos.”

So, if a production company were to take a gamble on a show that could be an awards season contender, a brooding and violent male protagonist would be a safe bet. But recently, a woman-centered riff on that storyline ― a vengeful woman with a plan, and a gun ― has emerged. In the last year, two films about women seeking revenge for sexual violence or emotional manipulation committed against them ― “Elle” and “The Girl on the Train” ― predicted audiences’ interest in “Big Little Lies.”

There is, it seems, an interest in stories about sexual abuse. But, perhaps due to the proven success of more clamorous approaches to storytelling, these stories are being stuffed into the revenge genre arc, the character’s abuse a jumping-off point for outward action. In “Elle” and “The Girl on the Train,” abuse itself isn’t the dramatic focal point ― the identity of the abuser is. But, as with “Big Little Lies,” critics seem less impressed with the deftly written mystery plot than they are with the portrayals of issues such as gaslighting.

Because it’s a miniseries, and afforded more space than a movie, “Big Little Lies” manages to achieve both things ― to comment on abuse as it unfolds, and to satisfy the apparent commercial need for a noir-like overtone. That audiences and critics both found Celeste’s personal struggles more resonant than Jane’s thoughts of revenge bodes well for the future of these stories; perhaps now production companies will be more likely to take a risk on complex depictions of abuse, rather than coming at the issue slantwise.

Imagine, for a moment, the plot of “Big Little Lies” sans murder. A woman, overcome with listless feelings, cheats on her caring second husband; another struggles to parse out her feelings for her husband from his abusive actions; another moves to a new town, and, due in part to class differences, struggles to defend her son against bullying accusations; another feels spurned for balancing work with parenting, and behaves defensively as a result; another is trying to gingerly encourage her stepdaughter’s activism, while remaining cordial with her husband’s overbearing ex.

There are ample opportunities for tension, for high stakes, for the things that make stories interesting. But, in the past, this type of story ― one centered on the earnest dramas and ennui of parenthood and domesticity ― has been written off as “Hallmark”-worthy, as unimportant.

Maybe we needed to simultaneously experience both ― a gun-slinging mystery and an all-too-real commentary on the dramas women experience daily ― to appreciate the value of the latter.

Fortunately, HBO ― the gatekeeper of must-watch smart shows ― seems to have recognized the salience of these stories. The network recently announced that it will adapt Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which, like “Big Little Lies,” focuses more on its friendships, and its domestic tragedies, than on the violence that surrounds them.

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