Friday, June 7, 2019

TV REVIEW: HBO's 'Big Little Lies' - Season 2

HBO's Big Little Lies returns for its second season on Sunday, June 9 at 9/8c. The new season stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Douglas Smith, Kathryn Newton, Iain Armitage, Crystal Fox and Meryl Streep.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening its first three episodes.

Big Little Lies didn't need to return for a second season. The first was an unequivocal success. It established its mysteries and provided all of the resolution necessary by the finale. It featured an ending that was neat and clean while still teasing that the lives of the central women wouldn't be as easy as they would hope. It's perfectly fine for shows to have clear-cut endings as well. Ambiguity at the end can add more power to the overall story. Moreover, the season was showered with praise. Sure, it didn't receive universal critical acclaim. There were elements that could be picked apart and weren't all that effective. However, it was easy to marvel at the sheer craft involved with this project and the tremendous work everyone involved was doing. Audiences responded so positively as well with the ratings for each episode going up. That is so unheard of but gave HBO a lot to brag about during the spring of 2017. And then, that trajectory carried through awards season with Nicole Kidman basically winning every trophy imaginable. Plenty of her co-stars were rewarded too and so was the overall show. As such, it's easy to see the impulse to bring this team back together for another set of stories in this world. The most difficult aspect was seemingly getting everyone free at the same time to film it because they suddenly had more opportunities afforded to them afterwards. That miraculously happened though. The creative team found a story they wanted to tell and the entire cast was game to spend more time in Monterey. Of course, there is a fair amount of pressure involved in this production as well. The bar has been set insanely high. There is the hope that it will continue to build on the successful year HBO has had so far with Game of Thrones, True Detective, Barry, Veep, Chernobyl and Gentleman Jack. The show is hoping for a new groundswell of support simply through the casting of Meryl Streep. The Hollywood icon and three-time Academy Award winner joins the cast in a major role. She gives credibility to the project that doesn't really need some except to assuage any doubts a potential viewer may have about a second season being necessary. And yes, the show immediately returns with its signature flourish and the ability to tell captivating stories for a wide array of complicated women.

Things are actually a bit more streamlined the second time around. The story is mostly focused on how the five central women - Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and Renata (Laura Dern) - are coping in the aftermath of Perry's shocking death. They covered up that crime in order to protect one another. The first three episodes focus on the daily struggle to keep the secret even when the pressure from a police investigation isn't immediately apparent. Sure, it's still an active investigation with some teases dropped in the early going. However, it's much more a character drama that focuses on how maintaining this lie reshapes the relationships that these characters have with their loved ones. Some of them have grown accustomed to lying. They have learned how to deal with it. Others are forever shaped by this experience and struggle moving forward. It's a very delicate balance. One that could upturn at any possible moment. That's really the driving force of the new season. There aren't flash-forwards that tease that something deadly is going to occur that unites all of these women together. There is no longer the greek chorus of fellow parents at the school talking about the trivial aspects of these women's relationships. All of that has been done. The audience should go into this season with the understanding that these are five women who are bonded together because of the lie. They are known in town as "the Monterey Five." However, that isn't the sole thing that defines them either. It's a fascinating balance that requires the audience to be engaged in the personal stories of these characters and their relationships while also understanding how it is deeply connected to this central act that could destroy all of them just as quickly. That's where the tension has been placed. It prioritizes the needs of all five of these lead characters. Plus, Streep plays a force of nature who increases the pressure to an insane amount.

It has been a big deal for awhile now that Meryl Streep was joining the cast this season. She is gracing television with her presence even though she has already won three Emmy Awards - as recently as 2017 too. And yet, it's still insanely incredible to see her completely transform into her character here. As an actress, she has always done a phenomenal job in embodying the spirit of the character and allowing the audience to forget that it's this recognizable actress in the role. She plays Mary Louise, the mother of the late Perry. She comes to Monterey in order to help Celeste with the twins. But she also appears in order to get answers as to what actually happened to her son. She is skeptical of it being an accident. That was the initial lie. She comes to learn that Monterey is full of liars who are carefully walking around in these carefully crafted narratives. Of course, Mary Louise is doing the exact same thing as well. She has a certain picture of her son in her mind. As such, it's difficult for her to reckon with some of the details she comes to learn about who he was as an adult. She is meant to be an unnerving agent who is constantly just appearing at the worst possible moment. She appears in order to make people uncomfortable and never forget that Perry once had a vital presence and is no longer around in this world. Plus, the show offers some commentary on the varying degrees of grief. Mary Louise has a vastly different experience than Celeste does. That informs so much of their actions and conversations. Celeste is grateful to have her mother-in-law helping her out. And yet, she's still in therapy coping with what her marriage actually was and trying to reckon with her life now even though she can't be fully honest with what actually happened in the night in question. The tension is just so rich and ripe with drama. It makes this such an easy watch. The audience may have questioned if Big Little Lies needed to return for more episodes. This season proves that this creative team and cast know how to tell stories in a compelling and engaging way. It should be fascinating to see how audiences react to the big developments as well as what may happen in the conclusion of the season.