Upon viewing, season two of “Big Little Lies” is peculiar and somewhat incomprehensible. Characters stumble around their scenery as if in the dark, or as if they walked into a room but forgot what they had come in for. Credits would roll, but it’d be difficult to string together a list of more than one or two relevant happenings in the episode.
With such a formidable returning cast — including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern — joining forces with series newcomer Meryl Streep, under the direction of Andrea Arnold, it seemed unlikely that the seven-episode season could flop.
But then, HBO decided to take what Arnold had made and hand it over to executive producer and director of season one Jean-Marc Vallée, in order to force upon her work his own style in the name of conformity and interseason consistency. This reworking would ultimately prove not only a damaging mistake, but an insensitive one.
“Big Little Lies” is one of the few shows on television that paints itself as invested in the stories of women. For HBO to then strip its female director of her control over the project and replace her vision with a man’s is a blatantly offensive move, and the season suffers for it.
The actresses meander their way through storyless scenes, and a lack of concrete plotting is at the core of this season’s failure to impress. It’s worth considering, however, that season two of “Big Little Lies” is perhaps no more aimless than many other successful TV shows. The difference is that what’s left of this show when stripped of narrative direction is its intricate investigation into womanhood. We may have been conditioned to feel that “what women are thinking about” is of insufficient substance.
That being said, the way in which the season unfolds feels disjointed at best, incoherent at worst. Scenes slide gracelessly between one character monologue to another — although, to be clear, such soliloquies are as consequential as they are quotable. Dern and Streep, in particular, offer up a smorgasbord of iconic deliveries, from Dern comically yelling “I will not not be rich!” to Streep letting out a bone-chilling scream at the dinner table.
But it’s Kidman as Celeste and Kravitz as Bonnie who are expected to anchor the season. While Kidman is given plenty of interesting work to do, Kravitz is, once again, underutilized.
The “Bonnie problem,” which became a common critique of the show’s highly successful first season, is only exacerbated this time around. Kravitz deftly navigates what little she’s been given — a devastating confession to her mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), showcases the season at its very best. But the show does not seem to hold any interest in exploring Bonnie’s experience as one of the few women of color in the town of Monterey, nor does it provide any proper development of Bonnie’s relationship with Elizabeth.
Not only are Elizabeth’s patterns of abusive behavior so poorly outlined that they fail to accomplish the intended task of explaining Bonnie’s decision to push Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) down the stairs in the season one finale, but they are also just one aspect of what is ultimately a harmful, stereotypical portrayal of Black mothers. And to top it all off — why on earth would the show suggest that alcoholism played a role in Elizabeth’s abuse of Bonnie, only to have Bonnie celebrate Elizabeth’s temporary recovery from a stroke by calling for a glass of wine? Like so much of season two, it would have been better if they just hadn’t gone there, given how incapably such material was handled.
Showrunners have suggested that the likelihood of a season three coming into fruition is minimal, and while season two failed to accomplish very much, the fact that it may never have the chance to redeem itself is a certain shame. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that season one is so damn rewatchable.