When HBO announced the return of “Big Little Lies,” which was originally framed as a one-off miniseries, a second season seemed like an unnecessary move. Not unnecessary financially, of course, or in terms of prestige and awards attention, but — you know — unnecessary on a creative level. That first run of “Big Little Lies” in 2017 was captivating, and it all wrapped up successfully into a self-contained story; why not just let it be, and possibly save it from the fate of “Killing Eve,” whose second season was a dire misfire?
After watching the first three episodes of season two, I’m still not sure I can say that the return of “Big Little Lies” is altogether necessary. But I can say that it promises to be thoroughly enjoyable and smart, with the same conspicuously good acting, the same sharp David E. Kelley writing, and the same spectacular Monterey views that contrast so well with the characters’ dark inner lives. Let’s just say that this seven-episode return to the endless secrecy and the beautiful misery of “Big Little Lies,” beginning Sunday at 9 p.m., is not unnecessary.
The addition of Meryl Streep helps justify everything; she’s the signature move of season two, and she’s impossible not to watch as the frosty mother of Perry, the late husband (played by Alexander Skarsgård) of Nicole Kidman’s Celeste. She makes Mary Louise into a mother of a mother, and watching her coolly wage war with Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline — “I find little people to be untrustworthy,” she tells the smaller woman — is a treat. When she calls Madeline a bully, you know it’s because it takes one to know one.
I don’t mean to paint Streep’s performance as a one-note monster or as the season’s big bad; Mary Louise is complicated and, at moments, sympathetic, as a woman dealing not only with grief but also an ugly new understanding of who her son was. You can see her denial and intense anger at war with her formidable emotional numbness. She fits in perfectly on the show, where the star power of the actors adds a fitting touch of gloss to their performances as wealthy West Coasters.
I admire the fact that Kelley, who created the story line for season two with “Big Little Lies” author Liane Moriarty, chose not to build the new season around another murder mystery (at least in the first three episodes). The series picks up where it left off, more or less, as the five mothers who were present when Perry died — pushed to his death by Zoë Kravitz’s Bonnie after he attacked Celeste — cope with the aftermath of that event and the many truths it revealed. Questions remain in town about what exactly happened on the stairs outside the fateful Trivia Night, with the moniker “The Monterey Five” floating around as if the women are under criminal suspicion, which, based on the recurring bits of footage we see from their police interviews, seems true.
Each of the women has her own kind of fallout, with Bonnie, who did the pushing, tormented by a sense of guilt, and Celeste — helped along by her therapist — juggling sorrow, relief, and denial at the loss of her abuser. The bond between the women, which was one of the rousing aspects of the first season finale, is not as sturdy as we were left to believe, particularly when it comes to Bonnie. I’m not sure yet whether the growing alienation of Bonnie will somehow compromise the gender politics established so clearly across season one, but the development gives Kravitz more material to work with.
Crystal Fox is a welcome addition to the ensemble as Bonnie’s mother, an uncompromising realist who wants to get to the bottom of her daughter’s depression. Her takedown of Bonnie’s husband, Jake Tupper’s Nathan, who can’t seem to help Bonnie, is one for the ages. Unlike the women of “The Monterey Five,” she has no patience for petty competitions and hidden affairs. With Fox and Streep acting independently as old-generation sleuths, more and more lies — big and little — are bound to be uncovered as the season develops.
BIG LITTLE LIES
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Shailene Woodley, Adam Scott, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Nordling, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Robin Weigert, Kathryn Newton, James Tupper, P.J. Byrne, Crystal Fox, Douglas Smith
On: HBO, Sunday at 9 p.m.