Big Little Lies takes women seriously. Why are dramas like this so rare?

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As Big Little Lies returns for a second series, Sarah Carson asks why so few dramas do dignity to the concerns of wives and mothers

I love it when film stars – proper film stars – are on TV shows. Not in fun cameos (they’re always popping up on sitcoms, what larks) but in real, meaty lead parts. First, it often ensures that a programme will be halfway decent; and second, it lends a certain prestige to the small screen, and helps to flip that traditional hierarchy, in which cinema topples telly.

Big Little Lies, which returns next week to Sky Atlantic, was a coup when its first series aired two years ago, starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, and a few token blokes such as Alexander Skarsgard and Adam Scott.

Based on Liane Moriarty’s novel, it followed the secrets shared between a group of wealthy women in coastal California who became involved in a murder investigation. I loved the depth of its characters, its twists, its soundtrack, its lush landscapes, and the scalpel it took to every woman’s facade of perfection. I also loved that it was contained: one book, one series, one mystery. Pristine storytelling.

When a second series was announced, I was unimpressed. Why must we drag out everything we love? It is, after all, probably the reason cinema has long held that superiority over TV in the first place – one stand-alone film offers fewer opportunities to taint a good story, while multiple episodes of a TV show can get baggy and lead to patchy moments.

Big Little Lies, to its credit, does have many more avenues to explore in the aftermath
of its first series’ bloody conclusion, which will only spark more anxiety and conspiratorial, clandestine tension. Those interactions – non-verbal understandings between women – are its richest moments of drama, beyond murder and deceit, and what set its tone apart.

Obviously, Big Little Lies is not the only American TV drama with women at its centre. There’s dystopia: The Handmaid’s Tale; legal: The Good Fight; spy thriller: Homeland; superhero: Jessica Jones; political: Scandal.

But it is the only solidly good (at least enough for the hyper-masculine HBO and Sky Atlantic) recent series that examines the emotions and allegiances of family life for women with real dignity, without reducing them to catty stereotypes and melodrama (no disrespect to my much-loved Desperate Housewives).

Wives’ neuroses and desires might be afforded an episode or two in other serious, acclaimed dramas – Carmela Soprano, Skyler White in Breaking Bad – but are usually treated as secondary concerns.

Why is this so rare? The Monterrey Five’s entrenched privilege and murder aside, are not experiences of the everyday, such as parenthood, friendship, inequality, fractured and abusive relationships, prejudice, and the pressure to keep up appearances, far more universal to your average viewer, man or woman, than, say, life in a prison, life as a CIA officer, life as President of the United States?

Stories about mothers and wives seem compelled to be offset with humour – as if they would not be sufficiently entertaining without it. Indeed, Big Little Lies is bitingly comic at times, usually thanks to Witherspoon’s caustic Madeline. That same humour is rarely seen in any comparable narrative about a troubled father or husband.

I now have high hopes for series two, not least because Meryl Streep has joined its glossy cast. What a shame, though, that series such as Big Little Lies are so rare that we must cling to the few we have so tightly.

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