What Big Little Lies Gets Wrong About Monterey

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Jane, Madeline, and Celeste at Fisherman’s Wharf, a local tourist trap. Photo: HBO

For a while, the HBO mini-series Big Little Lies was looking forgettable enough that residents (including myself) of Monterey, California, the supposed venue for this star-studded suspense story, could chuckle at the show’s fantastic representation of our area. But now that a satisfying and morally resonant conclusion has made BLL the subject of extended conversation and very likely award bait, it’s probably useful to set the record straight. The “Monterey” of BLL does bear occasional resemblance to the real thing. But if the show inspires you to head West looking for a community of rich, pretty people enjoying wine on their verandas as the sun sets perfectly over the ocean, you may be disappointed.

To begin with the basics, there are three distinct but overlapping geographical areas bearing the name of Monterey. There is the actual city of Monterey, a surprisingly small (30,000 souls) city that’s more middle-class than wealthy, with a definite working-class legacy left behind by the fishermen and cannery workers you may have met through John Steinbeck. There is the Monterey Peninsula, including, in addition to Monterey, the adjacent coastal village of Pacific Grove (which calls itself “America’s Last Home Town” and feels like it), the tony tourist town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the corporate golf and megamansion enclave of Pebble Beach (which is mysteriously absent from BLL). The places share the blue Monterey Bay and famously stable weather, but are otherwise very different, which makes BLL’s projection of the area as tight-knit feel strange.

But even though most of BLL is filmed on the Monterey Peninsula, it also includes a lot of footage of the Carmel Highlands–Big Sur Pacific coastline south of the Peninsula, which is part of the third Monterey locale, Monterey County. The county is a vast area (one-and-a-half times the size of Delaware) that includes oil wells, gang violence, the military ghost town of the former Fort Ord, fields producing over half the nation’s table salad produce, an out-of-control wild boar population, Soledad Prison, and the county seat and largest city, Salinas, which supplies the peninsula with much of its wage labor. Unsurprisingly, BLL’s sampling of Monterey County outside the peninsula was limited to the crashing waves of the coast.

There is enough spectacular beauty on that coast to satisfy the greediest eye, but not a lot of spectacular houses looking out at the setting sun, because the Central Coast has some of the more stringent development codes you will find anywhere (additionally, on the Peninsula the water is mostly to the north, not the west, which makes for less cinematic sunsets). And so most of BLL’s famously opulent homes are actually located in Malibu. There are other odd dislocations on the series. Even though several characters seem to cross the Bixby Bridge every time they get in their cars, that much-photographed engineering marvel of Big Sur is many miles distant from most of the area’s population. And while the coffee shop on Fisherman’s Wharf that Madeline, Celeste, and Jane meet at regularly is in the actual Monterey, locals rarely frequent the wharf, with its carnival-barking-style clam chowder samples and other cheesy tourist magnets.

You get the sense that the “Monterey” of BLL is sort of an extension of Silicon Valley, with various tech entrepreneurs and investors scattered hither and yon, setting the cultural tone of the community. In reality, if they are here, they keep to themselves. The economic aristocrats of the actual Monterey area are an eclectic mix: Italians who migrated from the wharves and the canneries and did well in real estate; large corporate farmers who grow a lot of that produce; and, most of all, weekenders from the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere.

And while tourist and weekenders’ money is ever evident in the real Monterey, there are plenty of salt-of-the-earth residents who would find the Elvis and Audrey impersonations of Trivia Night tawdry. Many of them are old folks living on expensive lots they are clinging to because their property taxes are frozen by Proposition 13 so long as they don’t sell. Others are like BLL’s Jane, newcomers fearful of being priced out of the area by the booming short-term rental industry. Yes, of course, some of them are obsessed with kids and status and the status of their kids. But what I missed most in BLL was the luxuriance of local eccentrics right out of Steinbeck — the alternating endless talk of drought and flood; the love of the Monterey Bay and its barking seals, gliding otters, and rogue waves. When the squid start hitting the fishing nets every three years or so, the bay is alive all night with boats festooned with brightly colored halogen lights. It’s like something out of a movie — or an HBO mini-series.

What Big Little Lies Gets Wrong About Monterey