Meryl Alone Can’t Save the Second Season of “Big Little Lies”

Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies

The cultural phenomenon returns, minus its star director, with a little more Streep in its step.

Two years ago, Big Little Lies exploded onto the scene. It was the height of prestige: based on an award-winning bestselling book by Liane Moriarty, starring a crop of A-list actresses at the top of their game and shepherded by writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée, the HBO miniseries racked up both big viewership numbers and multiple awards.

Despite being originally billed as a limited event, following its success (and some undoubtedly lucrative back-end deals), the whole crew has been corralled back for another round of lies and WASP-y drama. The big exception is Vallée, who in this second iteration has been replaced by Academy Award winner Andrea Arnold (American Honey). Arnold is a great fit for the material: the transition between directors is unnoticeable and the series’ signature intimate camerawork and cool, beach vibes remain firmly intact.

The buzziest new addition for season two is, of course, Meryl Streep, whose Mary Louise arrives in Monterey following the death of her son, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) last season. Streep doesn’t so much inject new energy into the proceedings as she fits in seamlessly and complements its existing structure. Mary Louise is arguably also the new season’s main source of conflict; her desire to get to the bottom of her son’s mysterious demise requires her to assume the role of investigator (Merrin Dungey’s Detective Quinlan barely even appears).

Streep is unquestionably great as Mary Louise. Decked out with large glasses, a properly matriarchal brown wig lined with grey and, most notably, a pair of false teeth, the multiple Oscar winner is quietly commanding whenever she is onscreen. Streep makes the fascinating decision to act predominantly with her teeth, her voice irrevocably altered to assume tones that alternate between menacing (with Nicole Kidman’s Celeste) and disparaging (with Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline). The performance is a little hypnotic and it is easy to understand why so much of the second season’s attention and praise has centered around the master thespian.

The introduction of Mary Louise also serves to underscore the series’ least successful elements. The use of the framing device in the first season, foreshadowing the murder at the costume fundraiser in the final episode, was divisive. The mystery plot often felt undercooked, mildly obvious and at odds with the soapy drama of the lives of the rich and famous. Season two of Big Little Lies leans even further into Perry’s murder: the fall-out from the crime provides the only true source of conflict in the early episodes (there are seven; I’ve seen three).

…what once appeared effortless now seems to require more work.

Plot-wise, this new season does little to justify its existence. Nearly every single character is wrapped up in the throes of PTSD from the night of the incident, most notably Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), who finally gets the screen time and emotional storyline that was denied her in the first season. As the individual who administered the fatal push, Bonnie feels the most responsible for Perry’s death and despite the fact that at least four to six months have passed (the new season opens at the start of the school year) Bonnie remains withdrawn, nearly mute and prone to taking long walks or runs. Her dramatic change in behaviour has drawn the attention of Madeline, who naturally makes it all about herself, and husband Nathan (James Tupper), who calls in reinforcements in the form of Bonnie’s stern mother Elizabeth (Crystal R. Fox) and emotionally distant father Martin (Martin Donovan).

The Monterey Five

Celeste, meanwhile, is deep in the throes of grief and trauma recovery. She suffers from repeated nightmares, masturbates to old videos of Perry and tries to justify to Dr. Reisman (the amazing Robin Weigert, Deadwood) that her abusive husband wasn’t all bad. She’s also struggling to control her twin sons, who have become physically combative with each other (and her) while negotiating a complicated relationship with her overly-inquisitive mother-in-law. Just like in the first season, Kidman is bequeathed the majority of the emotional heavy lifting and she remains the acting stand-out of the series.

This leaves Madeline, Renata (Laura Dern) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) circling on the periphery. Madeline spends most of her time trading verbal blows with Mary Louise (the passive/aggressive quips are a delight), though there’s a development in the third episode that suggests Madeline is headed for darker dramatic territory. Renata remains as profane and unhinged as ever, though her storyline feels disconnected from the other women. Still, there’s something inherently pleasurable about watching the statuesque Dern hurl profanities at the Otter Bay principal or struggle to walk through a metal detector.

And then there’s Jane. Just like season one, Jane is both at the center of the drama and somehow completely removed from it. Much of her time in the new season is spent tentatively initiating a new romance with co-worker Corey (Douglas Smith) and while there’s every possibility that this storyline will reveal new layers to her character, Jane (and by extension Woodley’s flat performance of her) remains the weakest – and least interesting – of the Monterey Five.

For fans of the first season, there’s a joy in returning to this picturesque town and all of its heightened drama. And yet there’s a gnawing feeling of “been-here, done-that” that Kelley’s scripts can’t overcome. There’s simply not enough conflict here to justify extending the series, even if it remains as watchable as ever, particularly for audiences drawn to the bitchy lives of these rich, entitled white women. The actresses (and their respective male spouses) are all game for more shenanigans and the acting is as strong as it was in the first outing, but what once appeared effortless now seems to require more work.

Alas, even watching Reese Witherspoon throw an ice cream cone at Meryl Streep can’t overcome the series’ lack of necessity.

Season two of Big Little Lies premieres Sunday, June 9 at 9 pm EST on HBO.

Big Little Lies Season 2 Trailer:

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