But Madeline, the show will very soon confirm, is not really an under, and her work not really “work” in the way most Americans live that concept. She lives in a beachside mansion that looks to have leapt straight out of a Pinterest board. She never seems to re-wear her clothing (even her yoga pants). There is always a selection of fresh fruit on display in her rambling, eat-in kitchen. Madeline has a 6-year-old daughter who feels comfortable declaring, to Jane’s son Ziggy, “When I grow up, I’m gonna run a massive label.”
Wealth, in this show, is not merely a background affair, in the aesthetically and aspirationally pleasing manner of Desperate Housewives, most American sitcoms, and literally every film produced by Nancy Meyers. Big Little Lies is instead a comedy of manners that breaks what was once a cardinal rule of American etiquette: It talks, openly and unapologetically, about money.
But the show does more than that: It makes money into a character—specifically, a villain. Wealth, in Big Little Lies, looms and taunts and warns of violence to come. The mansions of Monterey are, in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s presentation, not just beautiful, but also vaguely ominous. The “ocean” in “oceanfront property” reads not merely as awe-inspiring, but also as threatening. Madeline, with her daughter next to her, contemplates the Pacific from her porch, as seagulls squeal around her: “Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?” she muses. “Monsters?” Chloe offers. “Monsters, maybe,” the mother replies.
It’s like this throughout the show: the spectacular and the spectral tangled up in each other, suburban banality sidling up to the environmental sublime. In Vallée’s Monterey, the heights of economic success—the Sub-Zeroes, the Vikings, the SUVs with Bang & Olufsen sound systems—hint, themselves, at falls to come. Big Little Lies may be a soap opera, and a family drama, and a nuanced tale of friendship and of parenthood. But it is also a murder mystery, and in that it is profoundly creepy. Its drama offers clues that suggest how lives lived in privilege could culminate in crimes of passion. And the vehicle of the violence, the show repeatedly suggests, is the very thing Madeline breezily discusses with her new friend: wealth. The monsters of Big Little Lies may be hidden in the Pacific; they are also present, miasmically, in the form of money that is ostentatious and excessive and so very sorrynotsorry—consumption that is, in the end, all too conspicuous.
“In an affluent community, a suspicious death at an elementary school fundraiser draws attention to the friction amongst some of the mothers,” HBO’s gloss on the series sums things up. Money, here—the clause that precedes all the others—permeates everything else. And it can create, Vallée and the show’s writer, David E. Kelly, suggest, as many problems as it solves. Renata Klein is convinced that her 1-percent status is one of the reasons that, as she confesses to her husband, “I am not liked.” Madeline, the type of person who does best when she is striving, finds herself, despite her Pinterest-perfect home, bored, and thus volatile, and thus prone to dedicating her energies toward people and causes that don’t deserve them. She has it all, which is also to say that she has nothing left to want. Call it the affluent mystique.