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'Big Little Lies' is less white this season. That doesn't mean it's smart about race

Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of "Big Little Lies."

No one knows what's troubling Bonnie Carlson. One of "Big Little Lies"' infamous "Monterey Five" -- a group of affluent women trying to cover up details of their involvement in the killing of one of their husbands at a gala school fundraiser -- the guilt-ridden Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) has been withdrawn since the incident, distancing herself from friends and family. Her husband Nathan fears he is losing her. Her friend Madeline asks if she's on drugs. Others in her circle are mystified and concerned.

But Bonnie's mother Elizabeth, who drops in for an unexpected visit in Sunday night's episode, bluntly offers her thoughts about what's at the root of the problem: Bonnie is a black woman living in a white community that doesn't appreciate or respect her.

"You're surrounded by people who don't get you," Elizabeth, played by Crystal Fox, tells Bonnie. "They don't look like you. I haven't seen one other black person since I've been here. Is that why you're here? We all know how fond you are of your walls."

Elizabeth's view could also be applied to the team behind "Big Little Lies." When it comes to black people and others who aren't white, they don't get it.

The scene between Bonnie and her mother is one of the most surprising moments in the new season of "Big Little Lies." While the Emmy-winning drama, headed by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern, scored mightily with both critics and audiences in its first season, some observers noted that the series, with its predominantly white cast and upper-middle-class suburban setting, conspicuously steered clear of mentioning Bonnie's ethnicity.

 

Others argued that Bonnie, a yoga instructor with braids and tattoos, was often sidelined from the main action and was less defined than her white counterparts -- nor was her daughter, Skye (Chloe Coleman), seen as much as their children. The only other significant person of color in Season 1 was Det. Adrienne Quinlan (Merrin Dungey), the lead investigator in the death of Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard), the abusive husband of Kidman's Celeste Wright.

The near-total absence of diversity even seemed to frustrate Kravitz, who said in a Rolling Stone interview last year that she had tried to get the producers to deal with the cultural differences of the characters. "It didn't work out," she said in the interview. "People are scared to go there. 1/8But3/8 if we're making art and trying to dissect the human condition, let's really do that."

It's unclear whether series creator David E. Kelley or the extensive list of executive producers, which includes Witherspoon and Kidman, are consciously responding to those critiques in Season 2. But it's evident from the three episodes made available for review that there's a lot more "flavor" in "Big Little Lies" this time around. In addition to Elizabeth's comments and the beefing up of Bonnie's story line, the supporting cast has been sprinkled with a few more performers of color.

However, while Elizabeth's statements and a more visible minority presence may provoke a momentary jolt of appreciation from those of us who want a little more topicality with our entertainment, this shift into "wokeness" is only skin deep.

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