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With 1 Huge Lie Revealed, 'Big Little Lies' Season 2 Takes A Slow-Burn Strategy

Season 2 of HBO's <em>Big Little Lies</em> finds the so-called Monterey Five (Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern) dealing with the emotional aftermath of the killing that concluded Season 1.
Season 2 of HBO's Big Little Lies finds the so-called Monterey Five (Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern) dealing with the emotional aftermath of the killing that concluded Season 1.

Sequels have come to seem inescapable in movies and TV, where the commercial logic is to keep a franchise going — even if it has nowhere to go. That's why I was leery of Season 2 of Big Little Lies. I'd been a fan of the original HBO series, a sneaky deep blend of satire and mystery that built to a satisfying finale in which its sexually violent villain is killed and the show's five heroines testify that his death was an accident. The story was over. But the show was too successful to end.

And so we have Season 2, set a few months after the death. We're back in the entitled coastal enclave around Monterey, Calif., with its yoga classes, photo-op real estate and overbearing parents who treat the local grade school as their personal fiefdom. As a new school year begins, our heroines — now dubbed the Monterey Five — are dealing with the emotional aftermath of their big big lie about the killing, as well as the littler untruths of daily life.

The tireless busybody Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has alienated her loving but prickly husband, played by Adam Scott. Nicole Kidman's Celeste is grappling with the death of her abusive husband, whom she can't get out of her head. Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mom who became pregnant after being raped, must cope with her son knowing who his father really was. Tech exec Renata — a deliciously histrionic character played by Laura Dern — is riding high, until her husband's business dealings go bad. Meanwhile, Zoë Kravitz's new age-y character, Bonnie — who actually did the killing — is in a funk over taking a human life.

The key to any sequel is to keep things the same yet add something extra. In a show like Big Little Lies, that means the addition of Oscar-winning actor Meryl Streep, who isn't about to be shown up by Season 1's tremendous cast. Sporting vaguely rodential teeth, Streep is effortlessly dominating as Mary Louise, the dead man's grieving, slyly aggressive mother, who doubts the official version of her son's death and refuses to believe he was a sexual thug. Mary Louise flutters around the Monterey Five, an unsettling presence who keeps turning up like Lt. Columbo and keeps strewing slivers of glass into everything she says.

Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, the original Big Little Lies took a seemingly idyllic community of suburban moms and showed the infernal stuff festering beneath it. This wasn't the most original idea ever, but the show deftly pulled you in with alluring surfaces — only to confront you with disturbing truths about sexual violence. The whole thing whooshed along with a mysterious sense of impending doom.

With the mysteries revealed, Moriarty and screenwriter David E. Kelley — plus a new director, Andrea Arnold — have adopted a slow-burn strategy this time out, at least in the three episodes screened for critics. Steeped in shame, anger and melancholy, the storytelling is moodier and less electric.

While this may ultimately prove deeper, it's initially less gripping. Although Kidman is terrific at capturing Celeste's confused sense of loss, for instance, these feelings are less dramatically compelling than Season 1's Emmy-winning portrait of a woman who fears but also desires her husband's sexualized violence.

That said, this sequel is worth seeing for its ensemble of leading ladies — maybe the greatest in TV history — who bring invention and life to every scene. Dern's Renata and Woodley's Jane are thinly drawn, but you scarcely notice because these actresses flesh them out with such skill.

I'd like to give a particular shoutout to Witherspoon, who, though the prime mover of the series, never got as much praise as she deserved for her smart, funny performance as Madeline, a woman with so many bees in her bonnet she might as well wear a hive. Controlling and insecure, Madeline is the show's glue and its most enjoyable character. I'd cheerfully watch a series about her sparring with the school principal, bickering with her teenage daughter, yelling at random drivers on the road and trying to save her marriage. Big Little Lies 3, anyone?

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.