tv review

HBO’s Big Little Lies Was Plagued by Messy Drama on Both Sides of the Camera This Season

From left, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Season two of HBO’s Big Little Lies tells two stories, one unfolding onscreen, the other offscreen. One is about female friendship, complicity, and conspiracy in a world dominated by men. The other is a behind-the-scenes melodrama about the entertainment machine that cranks out high-end dramas like the show you’re watching; its existence was revealed by an IndieWire story in which unnamed sources close to the show’s producers accused two of the series’ executive producers, showrunner David E. Kelley and first-season director Jean-Marc Vallée, of redoing the work of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey), a filmmaker they’d hired to helm all of season two.

The onscreen and offscreen stories merge in the mere fact of a second season’s existence. Big Little Lies season two is a genial yet blatant attempt to turn a popular, award-winning stand-alone, adapted from Liane Moriarty’s same-titled novel, into an ongoing TV series, even though the story felt complete at the end of season one. Adapted for television by Kelley (The Practice) and Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Sharp Objects), season one told the fragmented, elliptical story of a group of (mostly) rich women in Monterey, California, who come together to end an abusive man’s life. The victim, Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), beat his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and had previously raped the youngest member of the group, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), impregnating her with a son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage). The group’s lone black character, Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), pushes Perry down a flight of stairs during an altercation at an elementary-school costume party, and the entire group, including Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie and Laura Dern’s Renata Klein, conspire to cover up the crime by describing it as an accident.

Season two brings in two new major characters, both mothers, to stir up what has become a story about a group of guilty criminals trying to stay out of prison. Bonnie’s abusive mom, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), is a psychic who has visions of her guilt-ridden daughter immersed in water. Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise Wright, mother of Perry, makes like the world’s most passive-aggressive amateur sleuth, provoking all the women with insinuations, insults, and point-blank queries in hopes of proving that her boy’s death was intentional. Season two wasn’t unwatchable; in fact, despite many nonsensical developments, it was compelling because of the returning cast plus Streep, who turned in one of those weird, prankish, coloring-outside-the-lines performances that Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson started giving once they fully committed to being character actors. Laughing inappropriately as a form of emotional terrorism, filtering a Northern California singsong accent through pinched prosthetic teeth that she requested for the part, and unleashing a primal scream of maternal grief at a family dinner, Streep’s Mary Louise was pitiable and terrifying, dismantling the show in order to save it.

And it did need saving. From the start, something about this season felt off. Kelley’s writing always leaned on saucy exposition, but here it sometimes seemed as if every scene was delivering payloads of pertinent facts. And the show’s copious art-house-style flashbacks — a Vallée signature — often felt intrusive or obligatory; at the very least, they were less intriguing than some of the long close-ups that observed the characters in moments of distress, at times even staying on a woman’s face without cutting to the person talking to her (as in a therapy scene that ends with a long reaction shot of Celeste processing questions asked by her therapist, played by Robin Weigert, whom we barely see). The latter is more common in Arnold’s work, whereas Vallée is more restless with his images. But cinematic forensics will take viewers only so far in their attempt to figure out who did what and whether the season’s moments of inspiration and stiltedness are attributable to one creative person or a combination — as well as when in the production timeline the creative decision might’ve been made.

This type of offscreen drama is common in the, well, sausage factory of series TV, and it’s unfortunately an equal-opportunity indignity, one that every director for hire, even a multiple Cannes Jury Prize winner like Arnold, knows is a possibility when he or she signs up for this kind of gig. In contrast to theatrical cinema, which is still mainly a director’s medium, a TV show is driven by a writer-producer who either has some background in directing or else hires people to keep the look and sound of a show consistent over multiple hours. It’s common for parts of episodes, and in some cases whole episodes, to be reshot by a different director, or reedited by a new editor or team of editors, either because the showrunners didn’t like the original filmmaker’s work or because they decided to change key elements of the story and the people who had done the previous version weren’t available. Only an agreed-upon stylistic template prevents the aesthetic of a show from becoming cluttered or inconsistent. Ultimately, this method of production isn’t hugely different from the old Hollywood studio system, where a film like Gone With the Wind could have multiple directors even though the end product named only one. Under these sorts of conditions, egos get bruised, sometimes bloodied. But it’s rare for ugly details to spill out immediately into the public sphere, as they have with Big Little Lies. Usually, you have to wait for a tell-all book.

The optics of this scandal are uniquely bad, though, because Arnold was supposedly hired to give the show a distinctive vibe that would distinguish it from the work of Vallée. Whether it was intentional or not, hiring Arnold also addressed a criticism of season one: that a show driven by female characters, and co-executive-produced by two of its leads (Witherspoon and Kidman), was written and directed by men. Kelley and Vallée allegedly took Arnold’s work away from her without warning and substantially reedited the season to make it more like season one. Episodic directors get to submit the first cut of an episode, but they always do so knowing that executive producers may reedit or reshoot according to what they believe are the needs of the show. The question isn’t whether the showrunners have the legal right to do what they did here, because it’s standard practice on most shows. The question is whether they should have, and whether the series is as interesting as it would’ve been if they’d left her work alone. Whether sexism was intended or incidental doesn’t matter when the result is a behind-the-scenes story of a brilliant woman who was denied agency.

*This article appears in the July 22, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Big Little Lies Had Messy Drama on Both Sides of the Camera