In this TV spring of “Are we sure a second season’s a good idea?”, Big Little Lies may be the most dubious entry on paper. Barry came back with questions about whether it could balance its tone (which it didn’t always do well) and Killing Eve with questSions about whether it could sustain its story (which it didn’t really at all). But their first seasons weren’t sold as limited series, as Big Little Lies was (*). And BLL used up the entirety of the Liane Moriarty novel on which it was based, with a clear beginning, middle and end for all the characters.
(*) That no second season was planned at the time also allowed BLL to submit itself to the Emmys as a limited series, where it won eight times. Had it competed as an ongoing drama, would its star power have steamrolled The Handmaid’s Tale, or would the timeliness of Handmaid’s have been the steamroller?
But Big Little Lies also has the best argument for coming back. Not only does it reunite that powerhouse original cast of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and friends, but it adds Meryl Streep, in one of the few significant TV roles of her long and illustrious career. Talent doesn’t solve every problem — and there are definitely some bumps and stumbles as BLL reopens a formerly close-ended story — but when you can throw this staggering amount of talent at them, problems become much harder to notice.
We pick up, as the original series did, with the start of a school year, as the five central moms — Witherspoon’s aggressively chipper Madeline, Kidman’s introverted Celeste, Dern’s professionally aggrieved Renata, Shailene Woodley’s damaged Jane and Zoë Kravitz’s New Age-y Bonnie — bring their kids into second grade. Even the characters are aware that they’re stuck in a loop: “We have to earn our good mom badges all over again,” Madeline laments. “We all get judged all over again.”
But there’s a major difference from when we first met them. The women are now bound by a shared secret: that Bonnie killed Celeste’s abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) to stop him from attacking the others. They told the police that Perry fell, for reasons that make more thematic than legal sense. (Bonnie even complains this season that they should have just said what really happened, and no one bothers to rebut her.) For Renata, this means entree into a clique she’d been waging a cold war against. For Bonnie, whose marriage to Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) always made her an outsider, it’s harder, because she’s shouldering guilt that none of her new friends are. And for Celeste, everything’s messy. She confesses to her therapist, Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert, doing an impressive HBO 180 in a single week, between Deadwood: The Movie and this), that she still thinks about the good parts of Perry. And the arrival of Perry’s pushy, judgmental mother Mary Louise (Streep) complicates matters for all five of them.
Working under a muted brown wig, with a clipped and slightly nasal voice, Streep is a passive-aggressive wonder as Mary Louise. The character as written can be cartoonishly awful at times, even though she’s meant to be processing grief over her son — and struggling with the news that her sweet boy grew up to be a wife-beater and a rapist. But Streep finds nuance in the awfulness while also going big when moments call for it. (You won’t forget the sound of her screaming anytime soon.)
The returning actors already had experience elevating uneven writing. David E. Kelley, who returns as sole screenwriter (with Moriarty sharing story credit on each episode), remains an odd choice for the premiere actress showcase of the moment. Though part of his fame comes from writing for women (Ally McBeal), he often approaches the opposite sex as if he’s a space explorer trying to understand a strange alien species. His tics were at their worst last season with the Greek chorus scenes — broad and jokey interludes where other parents testified to the cops about Madeline and friends. Those have been eliminated this time, which is mostly good, but it creates the illusion that “the Monterey Five” are the only moms at that school.
Andrea Arnold succeeds Jean-Marc Vallée as director. She maintains some of Vallée’s elliptical visual and editing style, particularly in the way that Perry continues to appear in memories and home movies. (Skarsgård is still a regularly-billed cast member and gets more screen time than some of the living husbands.) But Arnold also seems to recognize that Witherspoon, Kidman et. al. are often best served with a less flashy approach; some of the new season’s most emotionally potent scenes just let the camera hang back and watch these great women work.
In dealing with the ongoing fallout of Perry’s death and the cover-up, Season Two is in pretty familiar cable antihero drama territory. But because these women aren’t career criminals, the early episodes wisely focus much less on legal jeopardy than the emotional kind. Jane seems to be doing well, having finally learned that the rapist who fathered her son Ziggy (Young Sheldon star Iain Armitage) was Perry. But the secret is fraying everyone else in different ways, even if Bonnie’s PTSD is the most apparent. (And she becomes a much more well-rounded character this time out, where Kravitz was very much the fifth wheel of Season One.) Kelley and Moriarty also recognize that other secrets from the first season have more life in them, like Madeline cheating on easygoing husband Ed (Adam Scott, still terrific). And they understand just how great and hilarious Dern was as a secondary villain, not to mention how to keep mining comedy and pathos from her now that she’s now on the same side as the other women.
There’s a terrific new arc involving Renata and her husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) that’s mostly separate from the Perry situation. It suggests there could be a life for Big Little Lies beyond the interlocking mystery that brought these five unlikely friends together. But even if the story burns itself out before this season’s over, Meryl Streep is on my TV set swapping insults with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. I’ll enjoy that while it lasts.
Big Little Lies Season Two debuts on HBO June 9th. I’ve seen the first three episodes.