At the New York premiere of “Big Little Lies,” Reese Witherspoon talks about how season two of the show came about. AP
In 2017, “Big Little Lies” was a sensation.
An HBO series with movie stars (Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon plus Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz), it became a ratings hit for the premium cable network and won a bucket full of Emmy awards. The seventh and final episode of that season was adored, with a poetic and gorgeous ending to the tale of women in a rich California town involved in lies and (eventually) death.
So although it competed in the limited series category at the Emmys, it seemed all but inevitable that the network would go back to this prestigious well for more, a choice that made some fans and critics (including this one) worry that “Lies” would undo all its good work by stretching the story beyond its natural conclusion.
Creator David E. Kelley and producers Witherspoon and Kidman knew they had to find a compelling reason to return to Monterey, and, after a shaky start, they do.
From the first three episodes made available for review, the second season (Sunday, 9 EDT/PDT, ★★★½ out of four), is nearly as breathtaking as the original. “Lies” remains an immensely satisfying platform for superb performances (now with 100% more Meryl Streep), one that gives women’s issues, often seen as frivolous, the weight they deserve. The new season echoes themes from the first – abuse, trauma, anxiety, loneliness – and finds new dimension as the story of the big little lies tumbles into chaos.
The new season begins about a yearlater, and brings us back to the first day of school as Madeline (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman), Jane (Woodley), Bonnie (Kravitz) and Renata (Dern) reunite to drop off their children for elementary school. There’s an unspoken bond between thes “Monterey Five,” irrevocably linked by Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgard) death at the school fundraiser.
Since then, each of the women has handled her role in it differently. Madeline doubled down on her mother-hen persona. Celeste, plagued by night terrors and lingering feelings for her late abusive husband, withers under the influence of her mother-in-law Mary Louise (a joyfully unrestrained Streep) and is unable to move on. Bonnie, the woman who actually pushed Perry down the stairs, has completely shut down. Jane, finally free from her rapist, is thriving at a new job and even trying to date. And Renata is just happy to be included in the group.
But as much as the women would like to put Perry in their past, Detective Quinlan (Merrin Dungey) still lurks, causing trouble. The secret, and all the little lies that built up to it, start to unravel fairly quickly, as Mary Louise and the women’s husbands start to figure it out.
It’s initially disappointing to see the story move on from that beautiful scene on the beach in the Season 1 finale. That first season was based on the Liane Moriarty novel, and there was no new material on which to base a second. But once the actresses start to dig into their roles again, and especially when Dern starts to unleash the full power of her Emmy-winning performance as Renata, the season justifies its existence (with the help of Moriarty, writing behind the scenes).
Not only does “Lies” find another story worth telling, it course corrects some of the first season’s missteps. The new episodes dispense with the Greek chorus of Monterey citizens discussing the women and also gives far more screen time to Bonnie, the only woman of color in the central cast. Kravitz, who was criminally underutilized last time, shines as brightly as her co-stars.
Lots of praise and attention will be given to Streep, but in many ways, the Oscar-winning actress is incidental to the success of Season 2. She’s wonderful, as she almost always is, but the real joy of “Lies” is the five core women, who have made their characters feel so lived in.
For once, Hollywood has found a way to gracefully re-create a phenomenon.
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