tv review

How Big Little Lies Lost Its Way

Nicole Kidman, before telling Meryl Streep that she can’t handle the truth in the Big Little Lies finale. Photo: HBO

The first season of Big Little Lies was more than what it initially appeared to be. What started out as a prestige soap opera, complete with a murder mystery and top-shelf actresses making catty comments, revealed itself over seven episodes to be an absorbing window into coping with domestic violence and the ways in which motherhood stifles female identity. A television show about the judgmental members of an elementary-school community ultimately taught its audience not to judge it by what it looked like on the surface.

The second season of Big Little Lies, which started out very strong, ultimately went in the opposite direction. Where season one blossomed into a series with more layers and insightfulness than one may have initially anticipated, season two increasingly contracted its ambitions rather than expanding them. Its first three episodes, which, perhaps not coincidentally, were the ones given to critics writing the initial reviews, were promising. The plot centered on the aftermath of the death of Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), specifically the guilt experienced by the Monterey Five for lying about the fact that Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) pushed Perry down the steps at that school fundraiser as well as the impact of the increasing snoopiness of Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), Perry’s mother. But the second Big Little Lies had other concerns, too, including the implosion of Renata’s financial security, Jane’s attempt to forge a romantic relationship with Corey, Bonnie’s unraveling, and the shake-up of the marriage between Madeline and Ed. Initially, it juggled them all with a mix of wry humor and earned melodrama, sold by the kind of cast that you dream of in your wildest TV-related fantasies.

The season peaked early. Specifically, it peaked in episode three, which, to put this in Friends-ian terms, was “The One Where Amabella Passes Out Because of Global Warming.” That episode achieved what so much of the first season did in that it took the text of a story line — the idea that all the high-strung, privileged parents at Otter Bay were freaking out because their kids were learning too much about climate change — and used it to speak to the drama’s subtextual themes about dishonesty and burying unpleasant realities. The scene that took place at the “ad-hoc Golden Bell Award–winning assembly” was Big Little Lies at its best, in that it took a recognizable situation — if you have school-age children, it’s likely you’ve sat through some form of a PTA meeting like this one — and revealed the humor in it, while also striking a deep emotional note about life’s dark side via Madeline’s impromptu speech about school shootings and “The Rainbow Connection.”

Starting with episode four — a.k.a. “The One Where Nicole Kidman Slaps Meryl Streep” — Big Little Lies season two started to take a wrong turn. In that episode, Mary Louise announces her intention to seek custody of Max and Josh, the twin sons of Perry and Celeste (Kidman), Perry’s widow. From that point forward, even though there were still other plot points percolating, the series became more focused on the custody battle and its ramifications for Celeste and, potentially, the secret being kept by the Monterey Five. By the finale, it was clear that the purpose of the latter half of the season was to get us to the point we saw in last night’s episode, where Celeste — who, in one of many nonsensical decisions, ultimately decided to represent herself in the custody case — put Mary Louise on the stand for the sake of an intense “Did you order the code red?” confrontation. By that point, a season of television that had aimed initially for nuance had been reduced to a soapy courtroom drama.

I can hear what some of you are thinking: If a TV show’s worst fault is that it’s intent on creating a scene in which Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep go at each other’s throats, that is still a pretty decent TV show, right? Kidman vs. Streep? Come on: That’s a dream. This is the thing I wrestled with, particularly in the second half of Big Little Lies, when its plotting began to try my patience. Even when I was keenly aware that, for example, everything about the Renata and Gordon bankruptcy only existed in this show as an excuse for Laura Dern to repeatedly lose her shit, I couldn’t get that mad about it because I, along with every GIF-sharer on Twitter, love watching Laura Dern lose her shit. She is amazing at losing her shit. In fact, Laura Dern is, unequivocally, the most exceptional loser-of-shit working in Hollywood today. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that all the attempts to make this season of Big Little Lies bigger than just the Celeste–Mary Louise business ultimately added up to nothing.

I also couldn’t ignore the degree to which logic had completely been chucked into the Pacific Ocean by the end of this season. The big gotcha moment in the courtroom scene comes when Celeste shows a video, apparently shot by one of the twins, of Perry beating up Celeste, irrefutable proof to Mary Louise that Celeste has been telling her the truth about Perry. It’s the evidence that finally silences Mary Louise’s contention that her golden-boy son is really the victim, a dead man maligned by his widow and also by Jane (Shailene Woodley), his rape victim. You get the sense that David E. Kelley, who wrote season two in consultation with Liane Moriarty, author of the original novel, intended this to be a real galvanizing #MeToo moment, a rebuke of every single person who has put a man’s reputation above the pain of women he has abused. But the moment seems off, not because the actresses don’t do their damnedest to sell it, but because it’s so far-flung from reality.

In a custody case like this, it’s hard to imagine a judge allowing one custody seeker to represent herself and confront the other in this way. It’s even harder to imagine the judge allowing this sort of surprise video evidence to be trotted out with no warning. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that this video even existed in the first place and that Celeste had never seen it before, nor had either of the boys mentioned the fact that they had filmed their dad beating the crap out of their mom. In Big Little Lies season one, at the very least, Celeste would have taken some time to digest that video. We would have seen her wrestle with whether to use it in court, or perhaps talk to her boys about the contents of it, or hey, maybe even discuss it with her therapist. Big Little Lies two is so intent on skipping to the juicy stuff that it leaps right over these small but crucial decisions. As a result, everything in the last episode feels rushed.

Most rushed of all is the decision that Bonnie and apparently the rest of the Monterey Five make in the end to go to the police and confess what really happened to Perry. Bonnie has been itching to unburden herself of the truth all season long. The finale encourages us to infer that the death of her mother, whose childhood abuse of Bonnie is what triggered her to immediately shove Perry when she saw him hurting Celeste, finally loosened her honesty. That meant (a) telling her husband, Nathan, that she never loved him, then (b) confessing that she pushed a man to his death. I can believe that Bonnie might make these choices, but it’s harder for me to believe that Celeste, Madeline, Renata, and Jane would all simultaneously show up to support her, especially just a few scenes after Celeste told Madeline that the accident hadn’t really bonded the five of them at all. “The lie,” she said, “is the friendship.” That sounded very accurate to me.

And yet, despite scene after scene of these women gathering in parked cars and on beaches after dusk to discuss how important it was to keep quiet, they all band together in the end to fess up. Again: Maybe they really would do that, especially now that Perry’s abuse of Celeste is more fully out in the open. The problem is that Big Little Lies doesn’t do the work of showing us that they would; it just hastily tells us this is what they did without much explanation.

This is a frustrating culmination of the show’s tendency to prod and poke at ideas that it never fully engaged with, like, as one example, Bonnie’s race. Bonnie’s mom made a point of noting that Bonnie was the only black person she had seen in Monterey, and while the show never outright states that part of the reason Bonnie may not want to confess is she may not be treated with the same leniency the authorities might afford to a white woman, that is a reasonable thing to assume. Bonnie is always the marginalized, alienated member of the group, a notion the finale drives home as it toggles between everyone else rallying around Celeste at the custody battle of the century and Bonnie, on her own, once again dealing with the death of a person she viewed as toxic. But Big Little Lies never really digs deeply into that division, nor how Bonnie’s life may be uniquely affected by telling the police what happened.

One of the biggest mistakes the series makes is its complete abandonment of everything related to Otter Bay. After the global-warming debacle — which, honestly, could have formed the foundation for an entire awesome season of Big Little Lies — and a brief digression into the suspension of Max, Josh, and Ziggy, the show detaches itself from the school community, which is what connects these five women in the first place. I didn’t miss the Greek chorus of judgy parents and administrators that acted as a thread throughout season one. But seeing these women through the prism of how they are viewed in the community, and how their personal concerns impact their children’s daily lives, was a crucial part of Big Little Lies in the first season and the beginning of its second. The fact that Celeste might lose custody of her boys would have been a huge Otter Bay scandal, but we don’t get to see how that story line plays out in that context at all. As season two progresses, it’s like the whole milieu of this show becomes vapor.

Exceptional actors doing exceptional work can compensate for a lot, which is why I can’t honestly say that I wish there had never been a season two of Big Little Lies. If there hadn’t, I would never have gotten to see Meryl Streep place a cross on her chin and finger it while insulting Reese Witherspoon. My life is richer because I got to witness that.

But I still expected more from Big Little Lies. I’ve consumed enough TV to know that you can’t always get what you want from it, even from shows that have the highest possible pedigree and an exceptional first season behind them. But by the end of season two of Big Little Lies, I not only didn’t fully get what I wanted from it, I didn’t feel like I got what I needed, either.

How Big Little Lies Lost Its Way in Season Two