Pop Culturing: 'Big Little Lies' Season 2: Mamma Mia Here We Go Again!

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday June 7, 2019

From left to right: Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and  Laura Dern in "Big Little Lies" Season 2.
From left to right: Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern in "Big Little Lies" Season 2.  (Source:Jennifer Clasen/HBO)

The lifespan of a TV show, or how many seasons it should run, is something many creators often think about. One of the best reviewed TV shows of all time, "Chernobyl," just ended its 5-episode run on HBO. The miniseries was the perfect length to tell its massive and shocking story: A 2-hour-plus movie wouldn't have worked nor would a three-season series. Later this year, "Mr. Robot" will end after four seasons. ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" is going strong in its 15th season.

"Big Little Lies" became one of the biggest breakout TV shows when it debuted in early 2017. Not only did it have A-list talent in front of the camera (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley and more), the talent behind the camera was just as incredible. Created for the small screen by TV writing vet David E. Kelley ("The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "Boston Public"), and based on the novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty, the star-studded drama was directed in full by Jean-Marc Vallee ("Dallas Buyers Club," "Wild"), who helmed the Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson miniseries "Sharp Objects" last year. And though "Big Little Lies" was intended to be a once-and-done season, mostly everyone involved felt like there was more story to tell. Fans know Season 1 ended on a bit of a foreboding note.

Indeed, it's great to have the Emmy Award-winning series back for another season, which begins on HBO Sunday. "Big Little Lies" Season 2 is every bit as funny, insightful and exciting as its first run that makes a strong case for the encore season. The main cast returns, as does Kelley, who again writes each episode with Moriarty's involvement. Though Vallee isn't back (he does get editing credits on a few episodes), Andrea Arnold (best known for her 2016 road trip saga "American Honey"), is a perfect fit to take over. She's able to uphold Vallee's house style, incorporating the hazy and dream like quality (natural light!) he set up in Season 1 while adding her own stylistic flourishes. Scenes are notably shorter and snappier, ending abruptly. With zippier scenes, episodes have a breezy pace and allow the story to bounce from one plot to the next. With lots of shorter scenes, the cast is spread out with nearly everyone getting equal screen time.

Meryl Streep in "Big Little Lies" Season 2. Photo credit: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

"Big Little Lies" Season 2 also course corrects a bit, making Zoe Kravtiz's Bonnie a more central figure (for obvious reasons if you finished Season 1). Kravtiz's performance in Season 1 was one of the most underrated things that made the show so good and thankfully in the sophomore season she's got more to do and there's a bigger spotlight on Bonnie. "Big Little Lies" also nixes the Greek chorus made up of gossiping students' parents who attend the prestigious Otter Bay Elementary Public School in Monterey, Calif. where Madeline (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman), Jane (Woodley), Renata (Dern) and Bonnie send their kids. Some fans and critics found the peppering of outsiders offering context into the women's lives and the incident the season is built around to be annoying.

Of course, "Big Little Lies" gets a big boost with the addition of Meryl Streep, who plays Mary Louise, mother-in-law to Celest and mother of Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), who died at the end of Season 1. She's living with Celest, helping her at home and to take care of her twin boys. Streep's record as an actor is unprecedented; we know she's great — but it's been a long while since she's been this good. Arnold gets a fierce, albeit quiet performance out of Streep, who plays Mary Louise as a mousey well-meaning mom who is quick to cut Celest with a few choice words. She says she's in Monterey to be closer to his son's family but she also has her suspicions about her son's death — call it a mother's intuition. She's constantly bumping up against Celest and the outspoken Madeline, who would die on a cross of her best friend, and finds a formidable foe in Mary Louise. The scenes with Streep and Witherspoon going toe-to-toe are some of the best moments of the new season.

Mary Louise is also positioned as a controversial figure, an opponent of sorts to the #MeToo movement. She's a well-meaning (possibly liberal) Boomer white woman who often doesn't believe other women's stories of abuse. Throughout the three episodes HBO provided for review, she's challenging the notion that Perry was violent and committed sexual assault. There are some deeply intense scenes between Streep and the other cast members that ought to become some of the show's biggest talking points once they air.

Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in "Big Little Lies" Season 2.

"Big Little Lies" Season 2 also brings the Monterey Five closer together. Instead of a deadly secret driving the women further apart from one another, they come together in order to support each other. Bonnie is having the toughest time adjusting to the fallout of Season 1's events as she's retreating further into herself. Her mother Elizabeth (Crystal Fox) is eventually called to lend her support to Bonnie during her rough patch, giving Streep's Mary Louise a run for her money. If nothing else, Season 2 highlights the complicated relationships between adult women and their mothers.

Even Renata, who was on the outs and was once Madeline's frenemy, is brought close into the group. Though the main drama in Season 2 is living with "The Tell-Tale Heart"-esque lie the five women have between them, Renata has her own personal drama that allows Dern to shine. The same goes for Madeline; Witherspoon isn't just doing a 40-year-old Tracey Flick this time around and turns out a more nuanced and emotional performance.

The return of "Big Little Lies" doesn't feel like a cheap cash grab or a haphazard reunion for a paycheck (though, if Arnold sticks the landing in Season 2, she may go from indie arthouse auteur to a go-to creator). The return of one of the best TV shows of 2017 is one of the best of 2019, a deeply enjoyable drama with a stellar cast, with direction from Arnold that ties everything together. "Big Little Lies" Season 2 is the most you could want out of another visit to Monterey.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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