There’s a scene toward the end of 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate in which Al Pacino amplifies his scenery-chewing by gleefully lipsyncing and dancing to Sinatra’s “It Happened In Monterey.” Even though Lynne Moriarty probably wasn’t thinking at all about Pacino’s improvisation when she penned the novel that became the basis for HBO’s Monterey-based Big Little Lies (after all, over 20 cities are called some variant of Monterey), the Pacino scene often springs to mind while I watch this show because some of these characters are so outrageous. Especially when it comes to Renata, played in a physical, showy way by Laura Dern, who recently told us that the popularity of this limited series’ first season (plus 18 Emmy nominations and 8 wins) led Moriarty to pen a “novella-style bible of where these characters went” after what happened in Monterey, i.e. the homicide that ended the first season.
Speaking of that death, let’s briefly rehash how that murder mystery finished. Wasn’t it a little bit odd that Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) stepped up and killed Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) in the finale? Even reflexively, this seemed slightly “off” to me for someone who stood on the sidelines, taught yoga, and inspired jealousy for most of the season. No one ever accused Big Little Lies of playing to the obvious outcomes, though, and there are some positives to be had: (1) Do we get to see that fight stylistically replayed again this season with Bonnie flying into a fit of rage before pushing Skarsgard to his death? You’d better believe it; (2) Bonnie gets a much meatier story in the second season. A win for Kravitz.
Also, let’s clear up what you might be asking yourself. Are lots of characters still dramatically staring at the ocean this season? Yes, and thank god for that, but their stakes are higher now, and we didn’t require a second season, but this one succeeds with a different angle and an arguably superior one. The mystery element is now pretty much dunzo, so if you liked that, you might be bummed. Yet the new incarnation of drama unfolding is a different game and one that’s even more compelling. These characters — now gossiped about as the “Monterey Five” — are still sorting through loads of uncertainty (during the three episodes released for review) and grappling with enormous issues like domestic abuse, adultery, and raising kids who are also quite anxious. Yet the most fascinating aspect is how differently the main characters are processing the homicide’s fallout, one year later:
– Madeline (Reese Witherspoon): Not at all worried about the lie that the group told about how Perry died. Oblivious to legal repercussions and focused on her social standing among the other wealthy parents, but her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), is starting to have it up to here with all of the secrets.
– Celeste (Nicole Kidman): Feeling conflicted about Perry’s death. The abused widow can’t move on for a number of reasons, some of which venture into spoiler-y and controversial territory, but a major reason involves her hovering mother-in-law, Mary Louise (Meryl F*cking Streep).
– Jane (Shailene Woodley): Absolutely thrilled that Perry, her rapist, is dead. Dancing on the beach and moving forward with her love life. Go Jane.
– Renata (Laura Dern): Very much absorbed in her own seemingly perfect life, which comes crashing down for unrelated reasons. Doesn’t perceptibly feel one way or another about the death.
– Bonnie (Kravitz): The potential loose cannon and depressed as hell because she was the one who killed Perry, even though he was a mortal danger to others. Extremely bitter about agreeing to lie to police.
Then there’s the biggest molotov cocktail in the room with which each of these ladies must contend — Streep’s Mary Louise, who’s very suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Perry’s death. Streep is as much of a force as always and my god she’s a frightening character who, at one point, unleashes one of the most unsettling screams ever unleashed by a human being. Without her, this season would have made much less of a case for existing, but with Streep putting characters on edge, this season becomes a better one as the lies continue to grow in magnitude. This is still arguably the best female-dominant cast on TV, and that also includes more of Robin Weigert, who’s now the therapist to multiple Monterey Five ladies. She and Ed might be most well-adjusted folks in town. (Poor Ed — imagine dealing with Madeline’s antics.)
Somehow, Alexander Skarsgård is also back. Yes, he’s definitely still dead (no zombies in Monterey), but he’s still looming large to make us all ask: did these women really think they could sit back and enjoy that idyllic ending on the beach from the first season? Silly rabbit. The good news, for the audience, is that the characters are still as full of petty drama as they were before the murder, and now, they’re trying to keep their worlds from unraveling, which is entertaining to watch. So essentially, this season obviously abandons the whodunit format and zeroes in on the emotional aftermath. The necessary change-up works well, keeps things fresh, and delivers more upper-crust theatrics from HBO’s “limited series” that keeps on going.
HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’ second season premieres on Sunday, June 9 at 9:00 pm.