The latest Big Little Lies episode begins like a lot of Big Little Lies scenes do: with an Apple device being used to cue up a song. This time, the song is the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and the occasion is an impromptu living-room party of gradeschoolers and parents. Viewers see Ziggy Chapman (Iain Armitage) and Chloe MacKenzie (Darby Camp) grooving around while Chloe’s parents Madeline and Ed (Reese Witherspoon and Adam Scott) film them and then get in on the dancing themselves; we hear an iconic bassline and wah-wah guitar building excitement and tension.
But that same song plays as the camera cuts to Ziggy’s mom Jane (Shailene Woodley), who’s been pulled over by police for speeding, her mind racing after her having visited a man she thought might have raped her. As the episode progresses, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” recurs again and again. That’s because Ziggy has become obsessed with it, watching the Temptations on an iPad while on the way to school and practicing a dance routine when at home. But presumably there’s also an artistic reason the show keeps playing this tune: It helps illustrate Jane’s inner agitation.
HBO’s stylish miniseries of mansion porn and murder is shaped by music on a few fascinating levels. Within its tony setting of Monterey, California, characters are constantly plugging in earbuds, practicing choreography, humming in the car, dabbling on the piano, and recommending tunes to one another. For viewers, song plays the traditional TV role of manipulating emotions (with a mysterious mood for each episode set through the title sequence’s snippet of Michael Kiwanuka’s 10-minute soul-rock song “Cold Little Heart”). But music seems to be doing something bigger, too: serving as a thematic tell, a grand metaphor for how volatile forces underlie placid exteriors.