Big Little Lies. HBO. Sunday, June 9, 9 p.m.
You don't normally want to proclaim a returning TV show has already topped itself after one episode. But Big Little Lies, HBO's sinister and slightly cracked comedy-drama about male violence and female duplicity, has undeniably surpassed one of its own mileposts.
Last season, the show created busybody real-estate agent Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) as the scorched-earth snarkiest character in television history, spitting out such lines as "I would have told him to go fuck himself, but I don't talk like that" like a machine gun.
Yet this season's opening episode was barely underway when Madeline met her match and then some in her first encounter with Mary Louise Wright (Meryl Streep), the mother-in-law of a friend. "You're very short," says Mary Louise with a half-smile some unidentifiable place between pleasant and creepy. "I don't mean it in a negative way. Well, maybe I do. I find short people to be untrustworthy."
Like Mary Louise's smirk, Big Little Lies is practically impossible to define but wholly intriguing. It's about sly contrivance and brute force, sexual terror and masochistic thrills, cowardly parents and terrorist children, people with too much money and too little sense, the savage id beneath the progressive superego. It's crazy funny, scary and disquieting. And it's about as must-watch as anything on TV.
Big Little Lies was HBO's surprise miniseries hit of 2017, Americanized but based closely on Australian author Liane Moriarty's novel about life in the upscale suburbs. It faded out with five previously troubled moms frolicking delightedly with their kids in the sand of a Monterey Bay beach, their problems all solved with a happily deniable murder, or at least manslaughter, of a hellishly abusive husband.
So when HBO announced Big Little Lies would have a second season, the natural question was, how? Two years later, we finally have the answer: a retraction of that final scene. Nagged by conscience and cops, the moms—now known as the Monterey Five by their suspicious neighbors—are slowly unraveling.
The most frayed is attorney Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), whose rapist husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) broke his neck in a tumble down a steep staircase that the women have falsely sworn to the police was accidental. Her shrink thinks her Ambien sleep-walking (well, sleep-driving) episodes and the agonizing nightmares in which Celeste dreams she's a monster are the result of survivor's guilt. But actually they stem from a secret Celeste has kept even from her friends: that until nearly the end, she was complicit in her increasingly violent sexual encounters with Perry.
And it's not helping that Celeste is terrified someone will find out how her husband really died—if not the cops, then her mother in law Mary Louise, who has some to help her care for her unruly twin boys but makes no secret of her suspicion that there's more to Perry's death than anybody is admitting.
Also coming apart is yoga instructor Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), the one who actually pushed Perry down the stairs after she saw him attack Celeste. Only recently has it occurred to Bonnie that what she did might not even have been a crime, but she was locked into the cover-up by her friends' lies. That's left her with a growing sense of apartness that's fed by the fact that she's the only one of the women who is black. Not that the others see it her way. "Unplugged is one thing," observes Madeline tartly. "But unhinged is a total other thing."
Young single mom Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), who realized only moments before Perry died that he was the unknown man who raped and impregnated her several years earlier, was initially relieved—ecstatic might be a better word—at his death, which broke up her obsessive brooding about what happened to her.
But the realization that the cops haven't abandoned their investigation of Perry's death is taking a toll on Jane, too. Best evidence: Her choice of a "fun fact" about red octopi to a group of grade school kids visiting the aquarium where she works. "Females contain deadly venom and sometimes they'll kill and they'll eat the males after they mate with them," she tells the bewildered children.
Model Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is worried about the cops, too, but those concerns have recently been eclipsed by the revelation that her husband lost all their money on an insider-trading scheme. Her primal-shriek response: "I will not not be rich." And ringleader Madeline is also distracted by a mutinous teenage daughter who has canceled plans to go to Stanford and is unimpressed with her mother's belligerent insistence that a college degree is the sine qua non of modern womanhood. "Do you know what kids do at college," her daughter asks the nonplussed Madeline. "They drink. They fuck. They mull over a sex change."
Big Little Lies' acidly funny dialogue is the work of author Moriarty, TV veteran David E. Kelley and Kelley's longtime sidekick Matthew Tinker. But that's only one element in a show that's as complete a television package as you could hope to find. The addition of Streep to what was already the deepest, most powerful female cast in TV history makes it simply impossible to look away ay from a single scene. (You also wouldn't want to miss the sumptuous seaside photography, which more than one critic has called "real-estate porn.")
The male cast isn't half-bad, either, including the seductively menacing Skargard, who is still around in frequent flashbacks, and Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) as Ed, the bemused husband of Madeline, who is unaware that the many of her incomprehensible enthusiasms that he patiently endures include cuckoldry.
Not the least of Big Little Lies' achievements is its relentless mockery of the moneyed class of California progressives from which most of its cast and writers presumably spring. Its characters embrace every crackpot totem of fashionable liberalism with bubblehead enthusiasm that masks a profound lack of sincerity. ("I don't give a fuck! I don't care about homeless people!" screams Madeline in a fit of unmasked honesty when she's blindsided by her daughter's college decision.)
It's all so pitch-perfect that when Renata warns her daughter's teacher that "My Annabella was bullied last year, in like biting and choking, so we're gonna make sure that doesn't happen again," it's impossible to tell whether she's threatening, or bragging.