HBO Big Little Lies

The yoga moms in our suburb have been chatting recurrently about the HBO show Big Little Lies so I decided to skim through it.

One big feature of the show is people driving their pavement-melting SUVs on winding undivided two-lane roads, often next to a cliff, and looking at back-seat passengers (children) or at a front-seat passengers. Where is the NTSB to protest against this?

Reese Witherspoon is the main character. She is married to what one of my Deplorable friends would call a “beta male”. When Hollywood needs a character whose career is believably low-paid, low-status, and irrelevant, what’s the go-to job? Work-from-home Web developer! Witherspoon’s character volunteers part-time in a community theater. How does she afford an oceanfront home in Monterey? (Zillow shows this at about $10 million) The answer seems to be that she was previously married to a high-income man and obtained custody of their joint daughter. So the oceanfront lifestyle is funded by child support under California law? If so, why isn’t there a fight over the cash-yielding 16-year-old when she wants to move in with Dad?

The 16-year-old daughter, for her part, hatches a plan to auction her virginity via the Internet and give the resulting cash to a worthy charity. Although a variety of the episodes show adults comfortable with cash-for-sex transactions within the context of family court, the parents are not happy about this. Nobody raises the question of whether or not this would be legal. The age of consent in California is 18 (Wikipedia; compare to 16 in some other states). Was the plan to drive up to Washington State and meet the high bidder there? Exchanging money for sex, outside of a family court, is presumably illegal under anti-prostitution laws. Would it become legal if a third party, such as a charity, were paid? No character in the show raises any of these objections to the 16-year-old’s scheme.

Domestic violence is a big theme for the show. We Believe the Children (see my first post on that book) says that Americans were desperate in the 1980s to convince themselves that poverty and domestic violence were unrelated (links to some stats). Maybe this is still true because the show’s abuser is crazy rich. The wife, who had been an attorney at a top law firm, can’t muster the courage to go down to the courthouse and take the house, kids, and cash. The couple’s therapist eventually coaches her on pre-litigation planning to win a custody lawsuit. How realistic is this? The book A Troubled Marriage that we referenced in our domestic violence chapter said that a common reason why an adult American doesn’t leave an abusive partner is that they don’t want to suffer a loss of household income (child support and/or alimony are typically less than 100 percent of a defendant’s income). But this abuser in the show had such a high income that the wife, even if she didn’t want to return to work as a lawyer, could have lived very comfortably on child support, alimony, property division, etc. Some suspension of disbelief may be required!

[Note that the character with the abusive husband is played by Nicole Kidman, who made roughly $200 million by divorcing Tom Cruise (see Daily Mail, which describes a failed legal argument: “Originally Cruise had been reluctant to agree a deal, arguing that with a £90million personal fortune, Miss Kidman could adequately support herself.”) Reese Witherspoon was herself a divorce and custody plaintiff, and alimony defendant in the California family court, according to Wikipedia.]

A big theme in the show is that one elementary school kid is being physically abused by another elementary school kid in a public school. This is one part that I had the most trouble believing. How could there be any mystery about what happens in an elementary school given the number of adults and other kids milling around? Nobody ever explains how two elementary school kids could be together unobserved.

Fans of The Son Also Rises and The Nurture Assumption will be excited to hear one character suggest that there could be a genetic basis for violent behavior and therefore, presumably, the rest of a child’s behavior. Most movies and TV shows stress the critical role of parenting, right?

The portrayal of the Monterey, California economy seems off. Some of the parents supposedly both live in Monterey full time and have top jobs at big enterprises. Is that credible? Wouldn’t it be a two-hour drive from Monterey to Silicon Valley on a typical weekday morning?

Readers: What is it about this show that has such a hold on suburban moms?


  1. superMike

    July 17, 2017 @ 1:26 pm


    Funny, I thought the gist was that the stay at home web developer had at some point been paid way too much (Like he was a stay-at-home web developer for google, like a hipster wozniak or something) Isn’t the dad a comfortable-but-not-rich bohemian construction guy?
    Monterey is where you go when don’t need to show up at work anymore. I had at one point tongue-in-cheek suggested that google should hold it’s PHD summits there so that the ensuing pregnancies could keep the PHDs chained to their desks for the next few decades.

  2. Fazal Majid

    July 17, 2017 @ 2:19 pm


    Driving the daughter to Washington (or more likely Nevada) would be a violation of the Mann Act.

  3. Anonymous

    July 17, 2017 @ 2:39 pm


    We need shows with alpha-dogs Web developers working from home.

  4. Vince

    July 17, 2017 @ 3:11 pm


    It’s TV and people have never demanded that TV be realistic, just entertaining. If women appreciate the series more than men, it may have to do with the fact that the leading characters are femaleles and the show appears to be about different kinds of relationships – friendships, marriages, etc.

  5. Suzanne Goode

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:32 pm


    Loved this series due to its credible dialogue/script and fine acting. If you’re looking for more realistic portrayal of divorce, look no further than HBO’s “Divorce” from fall 2016, which has been renewed for a second season, in which the higher earning wife (partly due to husband’s bad investments flipping real estate so it turns out his income may have been negative in the years leading up to the separation/divorce, and of course part of the drama is her ignorance of his “construction” business during the marriage) is in disbelief as to how much she may be on the hook in NY (Westchester County, I think). In the case of the character played by Nicole Kidman in BLL, she feared for her life (rightly so) so there wasn’t really any emotional room to contemplate the finances. This was the only series I watched spring 2017 (granted, not a big TV watcher) and while your brother-in-law wasn’t as huge a fan as I was, he watched it alongside me, and would overall give it high marks. The Facebook fan page was HUGE, with discussion of all the juicy details all day Monday following the Sunday episode, with 95% of its members female, so does make one wonder how many of them are full-time gainfully employed.

  6. Jim

    July 18, 2017 @ 12:38 pm


    It’s TV fantasy, Phil. I’ve been happily married for 37 years. But, hey, here’s Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in some pretty steamy sex scenes. I watched…I’m a man…what can I say.

  7. Suzanne Goode

    July 18, 2017 @ 1:37 pm


    @Jim, my husband watched BLL with me, and enjoyed it, too. My 2016 fav series was “Divorce,” which hubby wasn’t as fond of as I was. 2015 was “Hung” which I highly recommend to all married couples.

  8. Jackie

    July 18, 2017 @ 4:05 pm


    You missed the most unrealistic plot point – that there was a 16 year old virgin in California.

  9. Jackie

    July 18, 2017 @ 4:15 pm


    Also that anyone would be willing to pay a significant sum of $ to have sex with a virgin in 2017 America. If you were buying a plane ride, would you want the pilot to be someone with lots of experience operating the joystick or someone who had never flown before?

  10. Suzanne Goode

    July 19, 2017 @ 7:42 pm


    superMike above is correct. Reese Witherspoon’s ex-husband in BLL is not raking in the dough, so there may be only modest child support being paid to Witherspoon’s character when the teenager lives mostly with her. There’s no discussion of going back to court for a revision of child support when the teen renounces her mother & stepfather’s house. It’s fictionalized, for sure, and although I haven’t read the book on which the screenplay was based, apparently it takes place in a modest Australian suburb. So the adaptation is more glamorous but not necessarily realistic. However, the scene with the therapist reveals some knowledge of divorce litigation as you point out, Philip (at least on the part of the therapist’s character).

  11. MVI5

    July 20, 2017 @ 3:34 pm


    Glad to be counted as a non-TV owner.

  12. Jim

    July 20, 2017 @ 3:56 pm


    MVI5…no disrespect meant to you. But I believe folks who claim to not watch TV are deluding themselves into thinking they are saving their minds from something sinister. Television offers exceptional educational opportunities, and is an open venue into the rest of the world.

    The trick, of course, is to watch programs that entertain and stimulate at the same time. I can remember years ago watching HBO’s series, “The Tudors”. After 2 or 3 episodes I found myself googling Henry the VIII, wanting to learn more about this fascinating person’s life. A year later, I found myself traveling to London and making a visit to Hampton Court….all because I watched some TV.

    An intelligent person could have read about Henry in a book, you might say. Well sure, but it came to life much more visually on the screen. The lesson here is that I was educated about something I had previously never given a second thought to. And it led me to fill in the blanks by pursuing additional research.

    Again, no disrespect to those who are happily TV free. I respect your decision. Just know that much good can come from watching it.

  13. Suzanne Goode

    July 20, 2017 @ 5:14 pm


    agree with Jim as I was horrible at history in school, and never get through more than reviews of these Doris Kearns Goodwin tomes. And yet the HBO miniseries “John Adams” brought that era to life for me, and allowed me to derive far more out of a visit to Philly with my then-14 yo and husband (fortunately, all four of my kids inherited my husband’s abiding love of history, and his ability to remember who fought against whom, etc..) For better or worse, I enjoy reading People magazine more than watching most TV, so I watch limited TV, and apparently had little interest in TV when Philip & I were children — it was our brother Harry who was inordinately fond of TV — Hawaii 5-0 and Mash were among his favs as I recall — and he managed to earn an M.D. somehow. Added bonus to “John Adams” was that the daughter of my fav actress, Meryl Streep, played the Adams’ daughter-in-law (married the alcoholic son), and Mamie Gummer did not disappoint. I’ve known a lot of parents who ban TV altogether (often ban white refined sugar, etc., as well), and their children aren’t any superior academically to those children who’ve watched an inexcessive amount of television. TV is definitely the world’s best babysitter and peacemaker if you’re dealing with several children ages 8 & under.

  14. MVI5

    July 20, 2017 @ 6:09 pm


    Jim: you are likely right in that a TV can be used like a library- there are many types of books available and many ways to interact with the material.

    Perhaps I catch some interesting things on Youtube which would count at watching TV, though in shorter segments with the ability to scroll through the content.

    What annoys me might be some subtly politicized sitcoms where viewers extrapolate whatever scenarios they see to real life.

  15. Javier

    July 26, 2017 @ 10:07 pm


    Living in Monterey and working in Silicon Valley isn’t rare at all. I did it for several years, and for a while carpooled with someone else doing the same thing. We both knew many others doing it, as well.

    Caveat: I didn’t do the drive five days a week. 2-3 times, the other 3-2 days I telecommuted.

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