Schadenfreude TV

From a distance


in Pop Studies


Schadenfreude: joy in the misfortune or shame of others. When someone of high station or great accomplishment falls or fails we can feel assuaged in our relative obscurity by knowing that we suffer in less dramatic and public ways. So many joys in life are comparative — and this is one of them.

Schadenfreude is a sophisticated emotion — a combination of jealousy and revenge refracted through the lens of voyeurism. Part of the appeal of schadenfreude is that it takes no effort and involves no responsibility. We experience it like rubberneckers at an accident. In this regard, it is an innocent sin, one that ought not to evoke guilt — or so I tell myself.

This is all by way of explaining why I like the new HBO series, Big Little Lies. It is a brilliant distillation of schadenfreude for the affluent soccer mom in all her postmodern variations. For soccer moms nowadays, as the show amply demonstrates, don’t have to be stay-at-homes; they can be steely, high-powered professional women who dissolve into hysteria over a glitch in their child’s birthday party.

The cast for this mini-series is stellar — Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern are the most notable of a notable cast. These beautiful, rich actresses play beautiful, rich women with huge glass houses and fabulous wardrobes. They are married to handsome and successful men and have adorable young children. Best to look at in all respects is Kidman. Picture perfect with body, clothes, hair, home, adorable twins, and GQ husband — is it possible for someone to be so perfect? Of course not. She suffers a private nightmare in her marriage. The contrast between public and private here is so stark as to be delectable. I kept craving more of that smooth perfection of surface, if only to see it crack. Her tastefully chic outfits seem to exist to be torn off by her creepily handsome husband. (One perfectly tailored suit that she wears with a white silk blouse approaches the status of a secondary character.) The locale is Monterey, and the views are to die for.

big little lies view

Which apparently someone does. The plot turns on a murder that we learn about in the first episode without knowing until the end who is murdered or by whom. This is an excellent recipe for unlocalized schadenfreude, since the show does a superb job making everyone seem potentially murderous and murder-worthy.

There is even a viewer-surrogate: plain Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a single mom of limited means and a traumatic back story. She has moved to the area in order to take advantage of the excellent public schools for her six-year-old son. This is a clever move on the part of the producers — creating a stark contrast between privilege and abjection, and giving us voyeurs a pitiable creature to align ourselves with but feel superior to.

At this point, you will note that the principals in this show are all women, though the men are gamely present as accessories. This extends to the audience. I have yet to meet a man who watches it with the avidity that women do. But then, as I think on it, I realize that schadenfreude is primarily a female emotion. Although men must certainly experience it, women are prone to it because they face so many competing claims for self-realization. Whatever women choose to make central to their life — motherhood, marriage, career — they are likely to suspect that the choice may be wrong, that they have short-changed themselves in not choosing something else: If only they had married Joe instead of Jack, had a third child, not had children, taken that job on the West Coast, finished grad school, etc., their lives would be more whole. A show like this reassures us that our choices are not so bad, since these beautiful, rich, talented women have messed things up extravagantly, despite appearing to “have it all.”

Central to the show’s savvy understanding of female insecurity is its focus on mothering. Having children adds so many variables to what it means to be fulfilled and successful. The need to extend the self into the child is both pathological and age-old. The women in Big Little Lies have other outlets beyond motherhood — careers in some cases, interesting hobbies and interests in others — but their children still remain tethered to their identity in extreme and unhealthy ways. One of the more painful, if humorous, episodes involves a children’s birthday party, where the barracuda of a businesswoman played by Dern blows a gasket when she learns that her enemy, played by Witherspoon, has arranged an alternative outing for her daughter and her friends. The issue is a first-grader’s party, yet Dern’s character responds to the slight as though she were a character out of Greek tragedy. It’s ridiculous, yet poignant. It dramatizes the unpredictability attached to having children. Even at age six, a child is a singular entity whose presence carries all kinds of secondary consequences. She and her life cannot be controlled by even the most powerful mother.

As this vignette suggests, the show delivers more than schadenfreude. There are some wonderfully dramatic moments that can lead to real insight into the pitfalls of mothering. And some terrific acting. Witherspoon, in particular, lends her busybody role real depth. Her face in profile, with its quivering lower lip and incipient double chin, her thickening body always outfitted in something a bit too bright and too short, expresses that vulnerability that even wealth and beauty must inevitably succumb to.

But the scripting isn’t as good as one would hope. There are long swaths of predictability and cliche. The creator is David E. Kelley, that wizard of high-end schlock who gave us Ally McBeal and Boston Legal —shows that are as addictive as potato chips (or truffle canapes) because they show beautiful people being showily neurotic. I can’t help but be irritated by the fact that a man is behind the show (even if an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel by the same name) — one who happens to be married to Michele Pfeiffer.

That aside, I look forward to my next dose of schadenfreude and to the show’s sumptuous look. Witherspoon’s kitchen, Dern’s living-room views of the ocean — I covet them. It’s Million Dollar Listing, fitted out with a narrative. The show has yet to be completed, but I think I have guessed at least some of the relevant plot points. I like what I suspect—it feeds my schadenfreude. This is not the most elevated emotion on which to base a dramatic series, but it will do. •

Feature image by Melinda Lewis. Screen captures taken from series and episode trailers.


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.