HBO Big Little Lies

Philip Greenspun's Weblog 2017-07-17

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?