×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Big Little Lies’ Season 2’s Woes Started With Its Writing (Column)

The expectations going into the second season of “Big Little Lies” — a season that initially was never going to exist, before the first become such a success — were perhaps insurmountably high. Its all-star cast added yet another unparalleled performer in Meryl Streep, and with original director and editor Jean-Marc Vallee busy with “Sharp Objects,” acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Arnold stepped in. And while she and Vallee share a fondness for dreamy landscapes and wistful closeups, the assumption was that hiring her to steer the entire season meant that she might put her stamp on it in a way, or at least lend a new color to an already rich palette. What a new Indiewire report suggests, however, is that Arnold never got the chance to do so — which is frankly unsurprising given how “Big Little Lies” season 2 has so far unfolded, and therefore a real shame. 

There’s no saying just how different the season might have been if Arnold had the kind of control she might have expected when taking the job, or how much Vallee specifically managed to change when he took over post-production. Still, having watched all but the finale, the biggest culprit of the season’s decline (and in fact the series’ weakest component overall) isn’t the direction, but the writing. And one of the most damning details of the Indiewire report is its suggestion that the new edit scrubbed the season of Arnold’s particular “grace notes,” especially her way of filming between the lines on the page. (See: a scene like the one in her film “American Honey” in which the cast sings the titular song together in a car, each of them obviously experiencing it differently through their expressions alone — which, not for nothing, is a particularly good example of the kind of “people have revelations while driving to a specific song” scene that “Big Little Lies” lives and breathes by.) With vanishingly few exceptions, that Season 2 dulled Arnold’s specific voice and more wholly embraced that of writer David E. Kelley is obvious from watching it. 

Kelley, best known for network procedurals like “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal,” has always favored a blunt approach to the “Big Little Lies” scripts. That can sometimes pay off; you don’t get characters like Laura Dern’s pointed Renata or Reese Witherspoon’s insistent Madeline without some seriously forthright writing. But other times, the writing’s clunky attempts to be cutting and memorable crowd the screen and blur the lines between satire and reality too much for the moment in question to stand on its own. This shortcoming was also present in Season 1; I spent many scenes in the early episodes wondering if Kelley’s ever seen two women speaking to each other out in the wild without a camera to capture it. The difference is that in Season 2, the lack of a cohesive directing and editing vision has made the scripts’ weaknesses doubly obvious. 

What used to be an insightful series about the ways women bond and fracture in order to survive has become a disjointed montage of greatest hits. (Did you like Dern screaming in Season 1? Boy, does Season 2 have more Dern screams for you!) Most every episode feels like it was engineered backwards from two main concerns: “what do we want to see happen opposite Meryl Streep?” and “would this moment make a good meme?” The attempts to shade out Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) past has devolved into a muddled depiction of childhood abuse and vague mysticism (an especially troubling combination given that the root is her mother, one of the few women of color on the show). Scenes repeat, telling the same story of the same dynamic. Potentially moving moments — Madeline mourning her carefree marriage, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) grappling with grief and longing, Jane (Shailene Woodley) trying and failing to reclaim her sexuality after trauma — rarely get time to breathe. (Much has been made of how good the “Big Little Lies” cast is; less has been said about how consistently they elevate Kelley’s material to make it something far more nuanced and deeply affecting than it is as written.) 

Whatever the issues were between the directors, all of these weaknesses are ultimately down to the scripts. And if Arnold’s unfiltered version sought to bring out the subtleties of the moments in between — the unspoken trauma and panic and understanding that made a scene like Season 1’s crucial death resonate so hard without a single one of Kelley’s words — there’s no doubt that it would have been a more compelling version than the one we’re seeing now. 

RELATED:

More TV

  • HalseyDKNY 30th birthday party, Arrivals, Spring

    Watch Halsey’s Stunning Performance of ‘Time After Time’ at the 2019 Emmy Awards

    As part of Sunday night’s In Memoriam tribute at the 2019 Emmy Awards ceremony, Halsey performed a version of Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 classic “Time After Time,” over a montage of television stars who died over the past year. Introduced by actress Regina King, the singer performed accompanied only by a pianist and honored Katherine Helmond, Tim Conway, Gloria Vanderbilt, [...]

  • NBC LX - Valari Staab

    NBCU Launches Digital News Outlet LX to Reach People Who Don't Watch Local TV (EXCLUSIVE)

    NBCUniversal’s local TV division is taking a new tack to reach younger audiences that don’t tune in to its traditional newscasts. On Monday, NBCU’s 42-station local TV group is launching LX — a digital news brand that will produce original content for online distribution and, in 2020, via a live-streaming internet network and multicast over-the-air [...]

  • 'OpenAP' CEO David Levy Sees New

    'OpenAP' CEO David Levy Charts New Course as Stand-Alone

    A consortium built by some of the nation’s biggest media outlets to win new kinds of advertising is quickly changing its course. Founded in 2017 by Viacom, 21st Century Fox and Time Warner, OpenAP was initially designed to help marketers figure out ways to buy advertising based on reaching segments of audience that aren’t defined [...]

  • Will Arnett Joins BBC Soccer Comedy

    Will Arnett Joins BBC Comedy ‘The First Team’ From ‘The Inbetweeners’ Producers

    Will Arnett and Chris Geere will star as the chairman and coach of an English soccer team, respectively, in “The First Team,” a new comedy for the BBC from the producers of “The Inbetweeners.” The series will follow the off-the-field misadventures of three young soccer players played by Shaquille Ali-Yebuah (“The Feed”), Jack McMullen (“The [...]

  • 'Game of Thrones' Fashion at the

    'Game of Thrones,' Fashion Slayers: HBO's Drama Winners Also Shined on the Carpet

    The cast of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” knew how to make an entrance (and an exit) on Sunday night at the Primetime Emmy Awards. Before winning the night’s final trophy, Best Drama Series, stars like Emilia Clarke and Gwendoline Christie pulled out some fantastical looks on the purple carpet, with Clarke donning the mother-of-all-earrings by [...]

  • Emmys Fashion: Best Dressed on the

    Emmys: Best Fashion on the Purple Carpet

    The biggest stars in television stepped out on the Emmy purple carpet on Sunday night in a stunning display of gowns and vivacious looks. Fashion expert Brooke Jaffe, who visited Variety’s set after the show, picked some of her favorite dresses of the night, which included Zendaya’s truly enviable Vera number and Mandy Moore in [...]

  • Emmys 2019: Biggest Winners and Losers

    Winners and Losers of the 71st Emmy Awards

    The 71st Emmy Awards was a spectacular affair for the Brits, while broadcast networks all but vanished. Watch Variety’s Elaine Low and Audrey Yap unpack TV’s biggest night of the year, which saw “Game of Thrones” and “Fleabag” take home the top prizes, winning best drama series and best comedy series, respectively. Related Looking Back [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content