An Unnecessarily High-Art Viewing of Big Little Lies

What’s beneath that high-end surface? Some high-end art.

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Here is a question for the ages: Why is the luxury porn of Big Little Lies so much more satisfying than anything else on T.V.? Writers have thrown out a litany of word cocktails: Is it “Luxe bohemia”? “CSI meets and and Million Dollar Listing”? “The O.C. for the P.T.A.”? But those reference points feel a little lowbrow for a show this flawlessly finished. A TV show on which characters can reflect, without irony, “Remember after the remodel when we just walked around staring at how perfect everything was?” deserves a closer reading of its high-art references, intentional or not. It might help explain why we all want to live inside Big Little Lies. As Madeline asks, while staring out at the ocean: “Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?”

The Serious Hockney Vibes


The longtime Southern California-based painter David Hockney’s sleek surfaces and depictions of lives of leisure offer a way into the world of Big Little Lies. The first glimpses of Renata’s house, in fact, looks like one of his paintings come to life—maybe the Portrait of Nick Wilder, looming white mansion and all. [Also see the following Hockneys: A Bigger Splash, The Collectors, and Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)]. Of course, there is a practical reason the visual styles look similar: Madeline and Renata’s are actual homes in Southern California. But let’s not dwell on that.

The High-Minded Vista Porn

Nearly every scene, it seems, takes place within view of a seaside cliff (hello, foreshadowing). Madeline’s house is on the beach; Celeste’s higher up in the woods; and black-clad Renata looms over them all, right beneath a heavily VFX-ed sunset. Of course, Jane’s house is on a tree-lined street far from the coast. It’s a clear visual cue of their social hierarchy, and a dramatic trope that gets returned to again and again: Things look more perfect, more dangerous, and more inscrutable at a distance. All of which is to say it’s exactly like the work of the photographer Julius Schulman, who like the show offers up a reliable fix of California house envy and a clinically cool eye on the lives of the point-one percent.

The Windows on the World


People do a lot of looking out of windows on Big Little Lies. It’s hard not to when the views are floor-to-ceiling, like in Renata’s mansion, but there are less explicit examples: from the driver’s seat, in rear-view mirrors, at yoga studios and piloxing classes. Not to mention that the interviews behind two-way mirror frame the show for the viewer. Everyone here is on the outside looking in—the envy that drives the plot is by no means invisible. I mean, one could almost not help oneself but to think immediately of the photographer Gail Albert Halaban’s Paris Views series, in which the lens often focuses on the interiors of chic Parisian apartments, like window shopping for another life.

The Beach as Muse


There has been much ado about how the windswept Monterey beachscapes have become a character in their own right: genteel, distant, and volatile, it’s perfect casting for this show. Stephen Shore’s Capelight of Cape Cod seascape photographs are just as dreamy and foreboding; so, too, are the gauzy beach paintings of Fairfield Porter.

The Curated Voyeurism


Fun game: Try to describe some of the furniture pieces aloud. (Gas-powered outdoor modernist fire pit.) Celeste’s interiors and deck furniture have a very grand hotel feel; her closet is more situation room. Heirlooms? Antiques? Anything that looks like it has been used before? Not on Big Little Lies. This is furniture-as-impenetrable-armor, which suits its characters well. (For Celeste, might we suggest Rick Owens’s stoic sofas?) The photographer Philip Lorcia diCorcia’s staged and moody voyeurism, with apartments lit up and arranged like stage sets, is the natural analogue, of course.

The Sweeping Landscapes


The cinematography is awash in northern California’s majestic but foreboding natural beauty. Waves crash into cliffs, and the Bixby Street Bridge and Garrapata State Park make notable cameos, recalling the iconic California landscapes by f/63 photographers like Ansel Adams and William van Dyke.