If the first episode is any indication, “Big Little Lies’ ” second season (9 p.m. Eastern Sundays on HBO) lacks the zest of the first but has so much momentum in the wake of the death of Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) that there won’t be a shortage of reasons to tune in. David E. Kelley returns to teleplay duties, working from a story co-written with “BLL” novelist Liane Moriarty, but Jean-Marc Vallee has handed the directing reins to Andrea Arnold. The show’s mesmerizing quality ebbs during the memory-refreshing, regrouping episode “What Have They Done?,” even though the transporting theme song by Michael Kiwanuka is back, subtly remixed.
Although Season 1 adapted the entirety of Moriarty’s novel and there wasn’t initially going to be a Season 2, the sequel season’s narrative comes naturally. In the Season 1 finale, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) kills Perry by pushing him down the stairs at the elementary school fundraiser. She could’ve gotten away with it, she asserts to Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), but the other four women quickly told the police Perry accidentally fell down the stairs. Now the women are known as the “Monterey Five” for their mysterious presence at the scene, but it’s noteworthy that Bonnie is absent from their gathering when they convene to discuss their options.
The obvious choice is to keep their lips zipped, but police Detective Quinlan (Merrin Dungey) is suspicious as hell, and Perry’s mom, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), is now living with Perry’s wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and her twin boys. In Season 1, we see interviews with on-the-scene witnesses and character witnesses in flash-forwards, but Season 2 mostly uses the traditional progression of time; this might be another reason why it feels flatter.
But this cast, though. Series newcomer Streep is compelling, especially in her interactions with Madeline. Mary Louise notes that Madeline is short, then adds that she doesn’t mean it as an insult. And she notes that Madeline reminds her of a woman she once hated, but hey, it’s just an observation. This is passive-aggressiveness turned into high art. I almost expect Mary Louise will solve this case before the detective does, via willpower and not giving a rip about the feelings of the women she suspects conspired to kill her son.
Still, I’m most drawn to Jane (Shailene Woodley). A scene where she’s bopping with her son, Ziggy, to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” nicely illustrates how Jane is a perpetually tired young single mother but she loves her son and is passing on her interests (if Ziggy’s into it).
If Season 1 was about five women bonding – Laura Dern’s Renata is the one I haven’t mentioned – over a common foe in Perry, I suspect Season 2 will explore the fragility of a bond where the glue is the cover-up of what was arguably a murder. Cracks are already forming, not only from Bonnie’s open resentment from bearing the brunt of the guilt, but also perhaps from Jane’s attempt at an honest dialog with Celeste.
Yes, she’s a victim of Perry raping her, Jane says. But before that, she invited him to her room, knowing he was married. Celeste says she doesn’t hold that against Jane, and I believe her – on the whole, Celeste is gladder to be rid of the violent Perry than anyone – but it’s a prime example of the strangeness of “Big Little Lies’ ” relationships.
Another example is that Bonnie’s husband is the ex-husband of Madeline; they share a daughter, Abigail (Kathryn Newton of “Blockers”). Abigail plans to shun her parents’ college dreams for her by building homes for those who have none; in a soapy moment of dark humor, a frustrated Madeline yells at her daughter: “I don’t care about homeless people!” Then she clarifies: She does care, but not to the point of doing anything about it, like her foolish daughter plans to do.
“Big Little Lies” Season 2 – which will be seven episodes, like the first – is easily in the “must watch” category in part thanks to its dark humor about how people want to present themselves a certain way, but don’t want to back it up. So far, though, it has a less subtle touch than Season 1 – where Vallee’s moods and images blunted Kelley’s excesses — and I suspect it might fall from artistic greatness down to merely being a wonderfully acted “Will they get caught?” yarn.