It was sold as a feminist success story. And yet as its second series ends in scandal, it has become a parable of the limitations of Hollywood progressiveness, writes Hugh Montgomery.

Warning: contains plot spoilers about Series 2, episode 7

It was more than unfortunate for HBO’s mega-star Californian fantasia Big Little Lies that as it built to this week’s grand courtroom climax, its on-screen wranglings were overshadowed by off-screen disputes. So while abused widow Celeste (Nicole Kidman) triumphantly took to the stand to represent herself in her custody battle against her wicked mother-in-law Mary Louise (Streep), a real-life contest that took place many months ago was exposed, which may ultimately have more bearing on the future prosperity of the series than any plot development.

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The trouble was revealed in a feature on the Indiewire website, which alleged that Series 2’s director, the revered British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, had her vision for the series trampled on during post-production by writer/showrunner David E Kelley and executive producer – and first season director – Jean-Marc Vallée, with the latter subsequently leading on reshoots. Since the piece was published, Arnold has remained silent on the matter, though a source was quoted saying she had been devastated by events. No-one from any side has come out to deny the story, however.

Arnold always seemed like a bold, nay odd, choice to be given creative control of the show

What to make of the allegations? Well, Arnold always seemed like a bold, nay odd, choice to be given creative control of the whole run of seven episodes. On a superficial level, you can understand why her dreamlike, impressionistic style might have seemed like a good fit; the first series had its fair share of woozy sequences and lens flares. But there are other ways in which this bold, visionary filmmaker could not be more at odds with its modus operandi. Her films prioritise elliptical narratives and incidental moments, whereas Big Little Lies is a highly-engineered product, one where story is all and where the script tells, not shows, in a pitch loud enough to be heard even when you’re simultaneously cooking dinner and scrolling Twitter.

Whatever the exact ins and outs of events, it undoubtedly makes for a depressing parable about the limits of Hollywood progressiveness. Since it began in 2017, the show has found itself as a standard-bearer for the drive towards gender parity in the industry, with its powerhouse ensemble of female stars – two of whom, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, are executive producers – and their very public display of sisterhood.

This sorry episode has emphasised that behind every great female creative is a controlling man or two

But beyond the triumphant red-carpet optics, there have long been doubts raised about how enlightened it actually is – with critics pointing to its inadequate treatment of its one lead character of colour, Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie, for example, and the fact that, with its parade of beautiful houses and designer outfits, it’s yet another show trading in conspicuous ‘wealth porn’. And now this sorry episode has emphasised that, invariably, still, behind every great female creative is a controlling man or two. After all, Indiewire reports that Kidman and Witherspoon “loved working with Arnold and trusted her intrinsically” – though they are yet to comment on the matter directly themselves.

Should it have had a second series?

The treatment of Arnold aside, there’s also the question of whether it should have had a second season in the first place. When the show was originally commissioned, it was done so as a limited series adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name – but there was a weary inevitability to the subsequent announcement that it would be back for more. The entertainment industry does not, generally, quit while it’s ahead: from Homeland to The Handmaid’s Tale and Killing Eve, shows that had brilliant one-season arcs have found themselves extended onwards to arguably diminishing returns.

The casting of Meryl Streep was strangely too obvious, a bald expression of clout rather than any particular creative integrity

In Big Little Lies’ case, bringing it back meant, in the first instance, fundamentally doctoring the novel’s denouement. A common question on social media in recent weeks has been: after Bonnie pushed Celeste’s sociopathic husband Perry down the stairs at the end of series one, why didn’t she simply claim self-defence, as she surely could have done, instead of her and the assembled gang getting involved in a grand lie? To which the answer is: in the book, Bonnie did turn herself in, but 200 hours of community service and everyone tentatively moving on with their lives does not a potboiler make.

And then there has been the second series’ not-so-secret weapon, Streep. When the casting of Hollywood’s anointed queen of Serious Acting was announced, it was a gasp-out-loud moment, and the ultimate validation for all those ‘TV is the new cinema’ theorists. But it also seemed strangely too obvious, a bald expression of clout rather than any particular creative integrity.

The result has been a second series that has been as messy as one might have expected. If, as some pointed out, the jarringly different pitches of the lead ensemble’s performances in the first series meant that it felt like they were each appearing in different shows, that disjuncture was even more pronounced this time around. While Laura Dern’s volcanic Renata has been in some kind of absurdist social satire with her eruptions of privileged rage, Kidman has been the glossy, damaged and enigmatic heroine of a 1990s psychological thriller, and Streep’s severe, beady-eyed villain has had something of the gothic horror about her.

From its opening credits shot of our quintet sashaying slo-mo down the beach, the show was insistent on a narrative of female solidarity that rang false

But, by the same token, from its opening credits shot of our quintet sashaying slo-mo down the beach, catwalk-ready, like Monterey’s answer to Reservoir Dogs, the show was increasingly insistent on a narrative of female solidarity that rang false, erasing the interesting dividing lines between its leading ladies. Their involvement in a manslaughter cover-up aside, what, you wonder, would the status-obsessed narcissistic Renata and archetypal plucky working-class single mom Jane really have to say to each other? Back in January, Zoe Kravitz also revealed that she had pushed for the series to acknowledge Bonnie’s race, in vain: “I tried to make it a little bit more of a story point and… it was not heard,” she said. “So, it’s unfortunate.”

At least, come this week’s finale, the show was self-aware enough to truly acknowledge the synthetic nature of its camaraderie – in a scene between Celeste and Madeline, the former pointed out that the group conspiring had not eroded their relationships, but was in fact the basis of them: “The Monterey Five, whatever we call ourselves, the lie is the friendship,” she said.

Yet, for all the second season’s flaws, and for all the reasons why it should not exist, it still managed to remain must-watch TV, where many other series struggling to sustain themselves through multiple series simply become inessential. And perhaps in a strange way, that was because it was so haphazard. The whole may have been less than the sum of its parts, but those parts were all the more delicious for being unburdened by a need to cohere.

A triumph of camp

If there has been a connecting element, it’s the strain of camp that runs through a number of its diva-ish lead performances. From Witherspoon’s sorority queen sass to Dern’s elastic facial expressions (previously celebrated in the popular ‘Laura Dern cry face’ meme) and Streep’s formidable passive-aggression and false teeth, they have come with a winking awareness of their own star power and personas. Indeed, it’s noticeable how the online buzz this time around seems to have been led by gay men who have revelled in GIFs of its campest moments: Meryl primal-screaming and Dern lip-syncing to Diana Ross’s It’s My House in a sparkly red trouser suit are instant favourites to rank alongside Faye Dunaway’s “No wire hangers ever!” in Mommie Dearest or Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn belting out You Don’t Own Me in The First Wives’ Club. It’s become a show geared firmly towards instant gratification at the expense of subtlety – which has patently been fine for many fans, given ratings have only continued to grow. But whether Arnold was complicit in pushing the show in this direction is another matter.

Will there be a third series? Kidman has said the cast would love to continue – and yet it remains to be seen if the Arnold affair has inedibly tainted its feminist brand. The hard truth is it probably hasn’t – in Hollywood, star power talks, where respected female arthouse directors patently still don’t. Yet, above and beyond that, for all the piecemeal fun of the second series, a third series might really be pushing its luck. As the finale closed with our quintet belatedly handing themselves into the police, it felt like both characters and plot had reached a creative cul-de-sac, stuck in a show as good-looking – and as empty – as the bankrupted Renata’s cliffside palace.

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