5 Things: Big Little Lies

I’ve been MIA recently (that’s my bad team!), but now I’m back and ready to write! Sarah’s done a few reviews/discussion posts on documentaries and podcasts, so now I’m getting in on the action with my thoughts on HBO’s Big Little Lies. I really loved this series, and it engendered a lot of thoughts & feelings for me.

Synopsis: The show follows a group of women in the extremely wealthy Monterey, CA area who all have kids that go to the same elementary school. The show starts by letting you know that someone was murdered at a school event, but you don’t know who or why. The story exposes the truth through an intensive deep dive into the lives of these women and their families as you learn that the surface is never as perfect as it seems. It is also based on the novel by Liane Moriarty.

Image result for big little lies promo poster

Here is my list of what was beyond exceptional in this show:

  1. The Cinematography: Holy smokes you guys. This show is STUNNING. I grew up in the Bay Area and have been to Monterey before, but I was floored by how gorgeous each shot was. The show used its scenic backdrop like a supporting actor, every frame accentuated the actors performance or propelled the story further. Speaking of providing a powerful assist…
  2. The Music: The soundtrack to the show was at another level. This show is like a case study in how influential music can be.  Music defined the show, and every use of a song added so much gravity and emotion to an already exceptional scene. Why was every scene so exceptional, you might wonder?
  3. The Acting: When you have 2 Academy Award Winning Actresses (Reese Witherspoon & Nicole Kidman) and Academy Award Nominated Actresses (Laura Dern) combined with the amazing Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, Adam Scott, and Alexander Skarsgard you are going to get cinematic magic. Everyone was on their A game. Every scene was like a masterclass in acting- comedic or heartbreaking or some expression of subtle secret emotion. It was so clear how immersed and engaged each actor was. Give them all the awards. The way these characters related and interacted with one another was so compelling (and they didn’t even need dragons or robots to make it interesting- it actually felt like real life!).  Actors don’t really have any ground to stand on without the dialogue and source material, which brings us to…
  4. The Story: Liane’s world is rich and robust and real. Her story spans genres as it has lighthearted, funny moments while also being punctuated by moments of fear and drama. She created women who were more than one dimensional caricatures of women- her characters were flawed, and gritty, and relatable. She explored themes of abuse, of the struggle of balancing careers with families, of the dichotomy of individuality & having an identify as a mother or wife, and of relationships between women.
  5. The Relationships Between Women: I didn’t realize how rare it was to see deep and compelling relationships explored between women on screen, until I watched this show. BLL didn’t shy away from exploring the all too real competitive nature of female relationships. However, BLL spent just as much time showing how women stand up for one another, in both subtle and massive ways. In my experience, all women have one thing in common- we are always looking over our shoulders, some more than others. I’ve discussed this before, but from a young age, women are aware that they need to be careful (I wish this wasn’t true), but there is a very real threat (usually, but not always) perpetuated by men (obviously not all men). Big Little Lies explored this idea in a lot of ways, some more overt than others. Whether is was sexual violence, physical intimidation, physical abuse, a side comment with an underlying message, or just a look that lingered a second too long to be comfortable, Big Little Lies showed a very real look at what it can be like to be a woman. Big Little Lies made sure to explore how relationships between women can be extraordinarily powerful when a group of women bonds together and overcomes the petty and mundane day-to-day issues when presented with a real threat. I don’t want to spoil the show (since all of you are going to watch the show immediately), but the powerful last image of the series felt so real and so right.

In summary, you should all watch this show. Major props to HBO and Reese & Nicole for securing the rights to the novel and producing this amazing piece of art.

S-Town Review: Indulging voyeurism or stoking empathy?

Note: BIG spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven’t listened to the podcast in its entirety and you intend to.

 

I recently finished listening to S-Town, a podcast by the creators of Serial and This American Life, and found myself with some very conflicting feelings about it. First and foremost, I think this podcast is rich, engaging, beautiful and heart-breaking. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it. I came into it expecting something similar to Serial, and though I loved Serial, I was happily surprised to find something totally different.

After the first two episodes, the podcast wildly veered off the Serial course, breaking the true-crime narrative and diving into something much more interesting. For anyone who was hoping for a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, “who done it” crime thriller, they were sorely disappointed. S-Town was at some points extremely slow, but I think for those willing to stick with it, it was worth it in the end. After the initial addicting marathon listening sessions ended though, I was left wondering why I was so intrigued by this podcast, and whether there was something sinister about my interest in it.

The podcast begins with the investigation of the cover-up of an alleged murder, led by a tipster named John B. McElmore. Soon after the story begins though, it becomes clear that the evidence of the crime is lacking and eventually we find out that the alleged murder never happened. John’s tirades about his home, “Shittown,” Alabama dominate most of the narrative. It slowly becomes clear that the crime is not the story at all. John is eccentric, brilliant, unstable, funny and depressed. His views of Shittown and the state of the world are dark and apocalyptic, but also surprisingly astute and especially relevant given the ever-widening expanse between rural and urban America. During the second episode, the host, Brian Reed, gets a call from someone in S-Town: John has committed suicide. As I listened to this episode, headphones in, at my desk at work, my breath caught in my chest. I blinked away tears, hoping no one was looking at me, and felt this incredible weight of something I couldn’t put my finger on.

In some way I felt complicit; I had sat at my desk in the comfort of my cushy upper-class suburban life, eagerly hoping to hear my worst suspicions and stereotypes about Southern, rural, backwards, Trump-loving America confirmed. I sat, listening to the mad rantings of a man who so casually talked of his own suicide, just hoping to feel engaged.  I literally thought to myself at one point “man, I hope something more interesting is going to happen.” And in the midst of my pastime, a man had killed himself. And the most disturbing part is that the narrative foray into the life and secrets of a dead-man were about to be even more captivating than I could have hoped for. Indeed the episodes that followed poked and prodded through the life of a man with many complexities. As the podcast went on, the more I learned about John B. Mclemore, his secrets, his hopes and his struggles, the more I wanted to know. My curiosity couldn’t be satiated, and no matter how many private details I learned of this man’s life, it was never enough.

When I finished the podcast and took a step back, I was all the sudden struck by how invasive it all was. This wasn’t a man who had given his consent to his private life being exposed. And it struck me that maybe that’s why I was so interested. Because it was a raw glimpse into a person that wasn’t filtered by the way the person wanted to be perceived. Certainly the tragedy and sorrow of his life had something to do with my interest in it as well.  It’s human nature to be attracted to tragedy, to stare catastrophe in the face even when the decent thing to do is to look away. There’s a reason sensationalism is sweeping through U.S. media, as I mentioned in a previous post: because that’s what we want. The more shocking, the more depraved, the better. Privacy ceases to matter, boundaries cease to exist; the only thing that matters is that we get more information. The same was true of the life of John B. McLemore. The obsession over who he was and uncovering the secrets of his life was nothing short of voyeurism. In this case I use the word voyeur to mean a “prying observer who is usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous.”

So in this scenario, was listening to and engaging in this podcast indulging one of our worst human instincts of voyeurism? I think that for most people it probably was. However, I think the motivation for starting it is transcended by the sentiment that lingers after it ends.  Undoubtedly, a large part of the audience for this podcast (and really any podcast) is the liberal upper-middle/upper class. It’s impossible to listen to this story and not notice how contrasting the world of the rural south is with your own. At various times in the podcast, listeners were confronted with characters who out of context, might be considered contemptible. Yet something about this narrative humanized them. So that by the end of the podcast, it was almost impossible to characterize any of the people in it as good or bad. They were just people: flawed, full of contradictions, and products of their environment. And out of this realization came a deep sense of empathy specifically for John, a man that you had never met, the likes of which you may never meet. There are many things to dislike about John. He is arguably racist, sexist, masochistic and bleak. Had you just encountered him or any the other people in this story in a passing way, you would probably have written them off. But when you hear their stories something changes. They morph from caricatures to real people and all the stereotypes and judgment fall away. What’s left is empathy and compassion.

With all the divisiveness in the world today, I think that creating this kind of empathy is an admirable pursuit. In this case, the ends justify the means. Though what first draws people to these kinds of stories is voyeurism, if the ever-elusive empathy is the result, maybe the motive for listening in the first place doesn’t matter.

-S