With Meryl Streep joining the cast, the series “still mixes soapy melodrama with weighty themes, without becoming either exploitative or preachy,” writes Caryn James.

This article contains spoilers for series one and the beginning of series two of Big Little Lies

It’s not the crime – it’s the cover-up. That aphorism, which goes back to the Watergate era and resonates on through contemporary politics, could serve as a perfect tagline for the captivating second season of Big Little Lies, in which the murder which ended series one lives on as a secret, haunting and rattling the main characters. This devilishly clever series about five women in beautiful, seaside Monterey still mixes soapy melodrama with the weighty themes of rape and domestic abuse, without becoming either exploitative or preachy. The added bonus for the new series: Meryl Streep. She joins Nicole Kidman, as abused wife (now widow) Celeste, Reese Witherspoon as control-freak Madeline, and Laura Dern as hilariously self-absorbed business executive Renata.

Streep puts her mark on the series right away as Mary Louise, who arrives in town wondering how her son, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), really died. She is determined to find out what viewers of series one already know, that Perry was not only abusing his wife, Celeste, he had also raped Jane (Shailene Woodley) and fathered her son. When Perry hit Celeste at an outdoor school fundraiser, the other women leapt to protect her, but it was Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) – married to Maddie’s ex, in one of the soapier details – who pushed him down the stairs to his death.

Streep’s performance is delicious and wily

As series two begins, Bonnie is suffering from PTSD, Celeste is fearful that her two small sons might have inherited their father’s violent personality and they are all sticking to the cover story that Perry fell accidentally. Mary Louise isn’t having it.

Streep’s performance is delicious and wily. In wire-rimmed glasses and bobbed hair, Mary Louise has a soothing voice which masks her scolding manner, and a calmness that can abruptly explode into fierce anger. She is the embodiment of a passive-aggressive granny. Her grief is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean she’s a very nice person.

Series two can’t recapture the surprise of the first, but makes up for that with a new, droll tone. Some of the wittiest scenes in the early episodes are between Streep and Witherspoon “You’re very short,” Mary Louise tells Maddie in a lyrical voice. “I don’t mean it in a negative way. Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.”  

Like so much of Big Little Lies, Streep’s performance is just this side of camp. One of the show’s strengths is the way its characters and actresses range from extremely realistic to over-the-top, creating an engaging mix.  

The most realistic character is Celeste. This series, as in the last, Kidman gives one of her most visceral performances (which is saying a lot). Big Little Lies doesn’t diminish the seriousness of abuse, but unlike most shows it doesn’t shy away from Celeste’s complex feelings for her husband, which exist past the death she knows he deserved. She is frank about the fact that his violence often led to sex that she agreed to and enjoyed. She still misses him even though she is relieved that he is gone.

None of the male characters are as fully defined as they should be

On the other end of the scale, the most exaggerated character is Renata, so entitled that she blithely pushes her way through a crowd of little children. Dern plays Renata broadly enough to provide comic relief, yet also brings the character down to earth when she needs to.

Bonnie and Jane’s stories are more intriguing than their fairly lacklustre presences on screen. Jane’s already dull character now has an even duller boyfriend, who works at the aquarium with her. Frankly, now that Perry only turns up in occasional flashbacks, none of the male characters are as fully defined as they should be. Adam Scott comes closest as Ed, Maddie’s apparently meek but increasingly angry husband, whose patience with her secrets and lies has its limits. But the show is, after all, a matriarchy, full of mother-children and now, mother-in-law themes.

Over the next two episodes, the identity of Jane’s rapist is revealed to people who were never meant to know about it. Money and legal troubles pop up. “I’m not going to not be rich, am I?” Renata says in pure horror. All the while, a suspicious detective keeps an eye on everyone.

As in the last, the entire series was written by David E Kelley, based on characters from Liane Moriarty’s novel. Series one was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, but this time it is Andrea Arnold, the audacious director of taut dramas including Fish Tank and American Honey. If there were ever proof that television is still largely a writer’s medium, this is it. There is no hint of Arnold here, which makes you wonder why anyone would hire such a distinctive director only to have her colour inside the lines. But those lines hold up beautifully.

★★★★☆

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