“Big Little Lies” wasn’t crying out for another season, and frankly has to overcome some skepticism about doing one. Casting Meryl Streep has gone a long way in that regard – making “Big’s” list of big names even bigger – while creating a cat-and-mice game that’s again considerable fun, if unlikely to quite match the original’s beguiling mix of soapiness, humor and mystery.
Adding perhaps the greatest actress of our time to a roster already filled with movie stars was certainly a shrewd maneuver, and Streep obliges with a quirky, combative performance that nearly swallows the whole show, even with relatively limited screen time amid a large ensemble cast.
She plays Mary Louise, who’s ostensibly there to help out daughter-in-law Celeste (Nicole Kidman) with her kids, but who can’t stop asking uncomfortable questions about what exactly happened to Celeste’s late husband, which provided the payoff to the first season.
“I can’t complain,” she says by way of greeting one of Celeste’s friends, before suspiciously (and passive aggressively) adding, “Actually, I can. My son is dead.”
Writer-producer David E. Kelley – here teamed up with director Andrea Arnold, who replaces first-season helmsman Jean-Marc Vallee – has made a couple of savvy stylistic moves, blunting the inevitable comparisons to season one.
For starters, he’s dropped the Greek chorus and tells a linear story, without flashing back and building toward what transpired. Kelley has also stated that the second season – which he plotted with the novel’s author, Liane Moriarty – will be the last, promising a satisfying conclusion, which feels like ample reason enough to stick around through the seven-episode run.
Among the more interesting aspects of the new season is the bond forged, through fire, among the women known as the “Monterey Five” – played by Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern.
Still, given their privileged lives, these aren’t necessarily the people you’d pick to keep a secret, much less a conspiracy, under wraps, and weak links in the chain almost immediately begin to form.
Beyond Streep, the performances remain top-notch, and there are plenty of soapy doings, including concerns about getting one of the teenage kids (Kathryn Newton) into college, which comes at a propitious time in light of the recent admissions scandal.
Kelley’s knack for dialogue also hasn’t wavered, including one of the five protesting to her husband “I will not not be rich” during a moment of crisis.
For all that, the addictive first season of “Big Little Lies” felt like a little gem – in much the way the first “True Detective” did – and trying to continue the story or mint another, for reasons that have more to do with commerce than creativity, always carries the risk of failing to match those lofty expectations.
Based on the three episodes previewed, so far, so pretty good in terms of justifying another dreamy drive up the California coast. That’s thanks, in no small part, to this Streep kid, who has demonstrated that she can class up even the classiest of seaside towns.
“Big Little Lies” premieres June 9 at 9 p.m. on HBO.