HBO's Emmy-winning limited series "Big Little Lies," based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, is back (so, uh, no longer "limited" beginning on June 9). Does the show's second offer more than its stellar cast — now with the much-hyped the addition of Meryl Streep — to keep viewers hooked? Here's what reviews of the first three episodes released to critics say (spoilers for the conclusion of the first season ahead):
It Picks Up About A Year After The First Season's Climax
We're back in the entitled coastal enclave around Monterey, Calif., with its yoga classes, photo-op real estate and overbearing parents who treat the local grade school as their personal fiefdom. As a new school year begins, our heroines — now dubbed the Monterey Five — are dealing with the emotional aftermath of their big big lie about the killing, as well as the littler untruths of daily life.
The story, for which Kelley and Moriarty share credit, picks through the pieces left behind by Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard), the abusive husband of Kidman's Celeste and rapist of single mother Jane (Shailene Woodley). How is Celeste grappling with the tainted memories of her marriage, or the needs of her newly fatherless kids? What about Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the typically blissed-out hippie who ultimately pushed Perry down the stairs? Or Madeline (Witherspoon), now finally forced to reckon with the infidelity she'd distracted herself from with various blood feuds?
The Biggest Wrench In Our Characters' Lives Is The Arrival Of Meryl Streep As Perry Wright's Mother, Mary
Mary Louise Wright (Streep, who is fantastic) has come to Monterey from San Francisco to help take care of her grandchildren, Celeste and Perry's now-fatherless twin boys. The role sees Streep meekly prodding and sometimes clumsily poking at Celeste and the rest of the Monterey 5 for answers about her dead son, but there's something clearly nefarious lurking beneath Mary Louise's innocent facade.
Mary Louise is the worst and best thing about the early part of the season. In a series that stood out for seeing complications in even its least sympathetic characters, she is a straightforward nightmare: sanctimonious, moralizing, devious and rude to the point that it suggests a social disorder.
Streep, Naturally, Makes The Most Of A Character Who At Least Starts Out Seeming A Little One-Dimensional
Mary Louise flutters around the Monterey Five, an unsettling presence who keeps turning up like Lt. Columbo and keeps strewing slivers of glass into everything she says.
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.
Streep could play a parking meter and imbue it with human depth. Her passive-aggressive line readings and gestures (worrying a little gold crucifix on a chain as she passes judgment) are pristine. She's drab and terrifying, a shark in a cardigan. In the first episode, she erupts from a meek smile into a shriek of grief, and that sound is the wail of every actress who will have to go up against her at the Emmys.
Watching Streep go toe-to-toe with Witherspoon—who, with catty, self-deluded Maddie, is doing some of her career-best work—is Olympic-level barb-trading, the most satisfying meanness in the show.
Zoë Kravitz's Bonnie Gets Some Overdue Focus
In the new episodes, Kravitz's Bonnie is most jarred by the events of the previous season. An earth mother with an impenetrable aura of self-containment, she's been deeply traumatized by her direct involvement in Perry's death and her inability to share what happened with her husband and daughter.
Bonnie has to reckon with being the person who actually pushed him down the steps. She needs to trust Madeline and Renata and Celeste and Jane, women she's hardly interacted with in the past.
This time, Bonnie's social isolation and personal identity are made explicit, a process catalyzed by the arrival of her mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox). While welcome, the move still feels like too little, too late, a transparent and clumsy attempt to fix flaws that shouldn't have needed pointing out.
Kravitz And Laura Dern Both Get More Chances To Shine
The new episodes benefit from bigger spotlights for Dern and Kravitz, whose characters couldn't be more different, which is exactly why their responses to a crumbling home life are so compelling to watch.
As spoiled as viewers are to have Oscar winners such as Witherspoon, Kidman, and Streep sparring on camera for our enjoyment, to have Dern too feels like sprinkles on a stagecraft sundae. She's the most ludicrously extra character on premium cable, wearing full scarlet lace to a court hearing and responding to Otter Bay's climate-change messaging by threatening to buy every kid a "fucking polar bear."
Andrea Arnold Doesn't Skip A Beat As The New Director
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.
Arnold is just as adept as Vallée in presenting immaculate surfaces only to scratch at them to find the grit underneath. The American Honey director makes the palatial homes of these affluent Californians feel claustrophobic, like self-made prisons.
There's A Palpable Move To More Serialized Storytelling…
The mystery last season swirled around who exactly had died at Otter Bay Elementary School's fateful Elvis Presley–and–Audrey Hepburn–themed fundraiser, and who had killed them. This time around, the central question commanding the series is how its characters got to be the way they are—a less suspenseful conundrum maybe, but a more interesting one.
Moriarty and screenwriter David E. Kelley — plus a new director, Andrea Arnold — have adopted a slow-burn strategy this time out, at least in the three episodes screened for critics. Steeped in shame, anger and melancholy, the storytelling is moodier and less electric.
It's also a bit lighter in tone, and simultaneously more grounded. This time around, it seems to be focusing less on shocking turns and mean-girl moments, and more on the interior lives of its characters.
… But It's Still A Show You Can't Tear Yourself Away From
Andrea Arnold, who takes over directing from Jean-Marc Vallée, retains its air of intimacy. Moment by moment, observation by observation, performance by performance, it is eminently watchable.
But for now, the show is driven mostly by the revelations and aftermaths of the first season's explosions — not just the killing, but matters of infidelity and paternity — their unwinding and their gradual exposure.
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.
Big Little Lies has transitioned from a singular TV phenomenon to a long-form, multivolume story that's easily recognizable as a TV show. It's just a TV show that happens to star some of the most famous and charismatic women in the world.
The biggest change Big Little Lies makes is to trade the unfolding mystery of season one for a more contained game of cat and mouse, a decision that the new season needs to justify along with its own existence. The first three episodes mostly make the case for both, but even if they didn't, are you really going to miss out on a chance to watch Meryl Streep try to take down this murderers' row of talent?