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‘Big Little Lies’ Gives Us What We Want. That Isn’t a Good Thing (Column)

If it’s even possible to feel sorry for the most celebrated actress of our time, then the second season of “Big Little Lies” has made me feel a bit bad for Meryl Streep.

In the season’s early episodes, the actress seems to have intended to continue what she began with Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” in 2017 — to work once again alongside a director willing to push her and to create a character who pulses with real life, one whose actions have the power to surprise us and yet that feel consistent throughout. In much of her 2010s work, Streep has had a tendency to default to “doing Meryl,” to uncorking a comforting and familiar suite of tics in playing outsized types in projects she dominates through force of persona. Here, though, as Mary Louise Wright, a character whose mousy passive-aggression is unfamiliar in her recent oeuvre, Streep had begun the process of showing us, somehow, a side of her we hadn’t yet seen, cleverly deploying reticence and a strangeness that felt human-scale. With determination and grit, she was pushing against a show whose first season was so precision-crafted that it seemed likely to push back. 

And then the show gave in, and let Streep win a game she may not have been trying to play. She is now the defining creative force on a show whose writing and direction seems loose and chaotic, leaving its new star at the reins. Mary Louise has, by the end of the season’s penultimate episode, proved herself practically omnipotent, able not merely to perpetually insert herself into the lives of characters she keeps — oops! — just bumping into but also to wage a slow-burn campaign against her late son’s widow Celeste (Nicole Kidman) that seems expertly designed to take both Celeste’s children and her extant scraps of self-worth. 

None of the plot mechanics, seemingly building to Mary Louise and Celeste cross-examining one another in a bizarrely libertine courtroom presided over by beloved character actress Becky Ann Baker, make even a generously-defined sort of sense. Nor do they serve the performance Streep had built, to say nothing of the legacy of Kidman’s Emmy-winning and justly acclaimed Season 1 performance. But the 2019 iteration of “Big Little Lies” seems unbothered by that, with its eye on a different goal: To deliver viewers exactly what they seemed to have wanted. The Streep we’re ending up with, despite her work against precisely this, is Streep in grande-dame diva mode; the Kidman we get is suffering for her sins in a high-camp manner that has its pleasures but that runs up against the meaty and substantial story Season 1 told. Her scenes are given no air, no room to unfold, but rush from offense to offense — tellingly, the engine for the first season’s most compelling scenes, Celeste’s therapist (Robin Weigert) has become an insult machine, having given up pushing Celeste through dialogue in favor of just telling her off. Celeste’s story, of mourning the husband (killed in the Season 1 finale) whose abuses she hated but whom she nonetheless loved, is among the many that could work; here, it tends to flicker away without narrative oxygen. 

Season 2 of “Big Little Lies” seems, more even than most second seasons of fast-burning sensations, to be an example of the monkey’s paw parable — the notion that one can get what one wishes for, but that it will likely come out warped by one’s own desire. The show’s first season depicted a group of women in coastal California whose lives were inflected by wealth and by the politics of their environment. Its second pushes the issue with a disco-birthday party thrown by the ever-more-hapless Renata (Laura Dern) and with an elementary school whose morbid curriculum seems drawn from “The Uninhabitable Earth.” (Writer David E. Kelley has lost a step as regards social commentary since “Ally McBeal” — or, perhaps, he’s applying that show’s 1990s view of politics as a game played by the idle for fun to a more fractious time.) That the first season’s climax occurred at a school-fundraiser “Trivia Night” at which the limousine-liberal stars attended in couture costume was a sly bit of fun, a nibble of candy with a sharp and bitter aftertaste. The second season has foregrounded the excess, granting Renata increased real estate even as her character’s avarice and rage show us less and less each time. We already know Renata can shout at those she sees as functionaries, and each subsequent iteration shows us both that Laura Dern is good at yelling (which we already knew, too) and that there may not be much of an idea behind Renata.

The remarkable achievement of “Big Little Lies,” when it emerged in 2017, was its use of previously published material, Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, to seed from its earliest going ideas about the power of female cooperation and friendship. Those who read the show, from its setting, styling, and stars, as a show about the silly problems of vapid people found their rebuke as the story built in power, impact, and vision. But without that material and attempting a story with an ambitious lack of structure — the ambient mix of grief, relief, and suspicion in the wake of cataclysm — the second season’s plot has felt dithering. It’s opened the show up to those once-misplaced criticisms, foregrounding setting more assertively in the absence of detail. It’s marooned the more-than-able performers Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley in storylines that seem lost and sidelined. And it’s given Reese Witherspoon new notes to play as Madeline, but those moments’ cruelty — as when she chastises Kravitz’s character for being self-centered in the wake of her mother’s stroke — jangle and jar. Discomfort is welcome in art, but inconsistency isn’t, and I found it hard to believe a character whose general motivation has been to build unlikely allegiances might be quite so unkind. The impulse comes, perhaps, not from Madeline’s character but from a show that seems hell-bent on upping even the antes that already seemed pretty high.

In aspects, though, the show seems to be attempting not to outdo or even develop upon but simply to recapture the first season’s achievement. Even without Jean-Marc Vallée helming episodes, for instance, Andrea Arnold’s direction seems to try for his particular tone of rapid-cut flashback and close-up emotional intensity. That Vallée’s is still the guiding vision, and that the season-one director remains credited among the show’s producers and editors as Arnold’s contributions have been less publicly heralded or even noticeable, suggests that the show was more intent on reclaiming what was widely seen as successful about season 1 than on finding a way forward. (Reporting about Arnold’s diminished role as production continued supports this notion.)

Season 1 of “Big Little Lies” was intended as a limited series, and as such, the show went for broke, burning through story and commentary at a pace that shocked and exhilarated. Perhaps the issue with season 2 is that it, once again, has been announced as conclusive, our last looks at Celeste, Madeline, and their milieu — and as such, it goes for baroque, amping up conflict with the serene knowledge that consequence matters little. These characters won’t, necessarily, have to live on. And in giving us another look at their world, the show is less complicating them than mortifying them. 

For all this, “Big Little Lies” is still enjoyable. Indeed, it’s often the most purely fun hour of TV in a given week. I’m mortal; I succumb to Kidman announcing that actually, she’ll do the cross-examination herself, or to Kravitz leading a beyond-belief group-sing yoga class to cure sleep apnea, as much as any other viewer squarely in the demo. The glam individualized suffering of these characters has a pull. But it’s not the most powerful pull the show has proven it can exert — making, in a time that seems increasingly far away, shrewd and careful points about bridging divides of class and prejudice to assert the power of community. That, I suspect, is the show Streep thought she was joining. That she ended up on one that has made her into a demon queen, one hounding a victim as various transmogrified characters we used to know look on, has given her juicier stuff to play. But it’s hard not to miss a show whose vision felt new, and not determined by a perceived audience interest that turned out, just maybe, to have been misinterpreted.

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