Tuesday 22 October 2019

Can Big Little Lies live up to the lofty standards it has set for itself?

After the resounding success of the award-winning BLL, Season 2 plans to dig deeper into the lives of Celeste et al. But can it live up to the lofty standards it has set for itself, asks Meadhbh McGrath

Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley return for Season 2 of Big Little Lies
Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley return for Season 2 of Big Little Lies

Meadhbh McGrath

When Big Little Lies reached our screens in winter 2017, it was hailed as one of the year's biggest hits. It boasted a superlative cast, a riveting plot and a rare example of a show with exactly the right number of episodes - seven.

But it turned out that actually wasn't enough. What originally began as a mini-series adapted from Liane Moriarty's novel of the same name grew into such a sensation - winning four Golden Globes and eight Emmys - that the team behind it, including executive producers and co-stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, decided there was more story to tell.

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The announcement of a second season made some fans nervous; the first season had managed to capture lightning in a bottle, but that kind of magic seldom strikes twice. Part of what made Big Little Lies so special was its stunning ensemble cast and the electric chemistry between them.

There's Kidman as Celeste, a woman struggling in an abusive marriage, and Witherspoon as Madeline, a busybody who panics as her teenage daughter grows closer to her cool, New Age-ist stepmother, Bonnie, played by Zoe Kravitz. Laura Dern is exquisite as the ferocious Renata, juggling her work as CEO of a tech company with attachment parenting the brilliantly named Amabella.

And Shailene Woodley brings unexpected depth to Jane, a single parent and outsider among the rich ladies of Monterey, quietly dealing with the traumatic aftermath of a rape. Each episode went off like a fireworks display, offering a weekly masterclass in acting, particularly from Kidman, who delivered her most profound work in years.

In Big Little Lies, the men are all secondary players: the women, and the fraught dynamics between them, take centre stage. It's a remarkable portrait of playground politics, marriage and suburban secrets - no superheroes, no dragons, just the everyday details of modern domesticity, albeit on a lavish scale.

The clash of personalities was delicious to watch: from Renata's scathing outbursts outside the school to Madeline's mischievous one-liners ("Renata, Jane is not a nanny," she explains in the first episode, "she's just young… like you used to be") and Bonnie as the carefree foil to all the venom.

Even more striking than the battles for power was the show's portrayal of sisterhood, and the fierce loyalty between the women. Despite their differences in age and circumstances, Madeline and Celeste take the vulnerable Jane under their wing, and in the shocking finale, all five are united against Celeste's violent husband Perry after learning he is the man who raped Jane years ago.

In an unexpected show of solidarity, Bonnie pushes Perry down a staircase to his grisly death, and the women agree to call it an accident. The closing shot, which sees the group relaxing on the beach with their children, bound together by this secret, was a beautiful and poignant ode to female friendship.

The show spoke meaningfully about the lives of women, the tyranny of perfection and the suffocating feeling of never being 'enough'. Witherspoon has described the central questions for each of the characters as, "Am I living the life that I'm supposed to be living?".

It also shone a light on domestic violence, presenting a frank and sensitive portrayal of the abusive marriage between Celeste and Perry. The therapy scenes between Celeste and Robin Weigert's Dr Reisman have been commended by real-life therapists as "refreshing" and "realistic", while audiences found them simultaneously gripping and devastating.

Yet there was light to balance out the shade. Big Little Lies distinguished itself with its fantastic sense of humour - it expertly treads the comedy-drama tightrope, a delicate mix that imbued the show with a unique and addictive energy. One irresistible example was Renata's line while getting ready for the Audrey and Elvis party we know will ultimately end in murder: "If I get shot in the head tonight, half of these moms are gonna say, 'she couldn't bother herself to duck?'"

In addition to being hugely entertaining, the first season was visually dreamy. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who previously worked with Witherspoon on the film Wild, it features breathtaking cinematography and some incredibly high-end real estate porn.

Big Little Lies has another secret weapon: its soundtrack. A playlist of pop, rock and soul takes the place of a traditional score, with Madeline's daughter Chloe acting as resident DJ. For the second season, Vallee has been replaced by Andrea Arnold, director of the films Fish Tank, starring Michael Fassbender, and American Honey.

And even if you aren't sure you need more Big Little Lies, you'll definitely want to see Kidman and Witherspoon sparring with Meryl Streep, who joins the cast as Celeste's mother-in-law Mary Louise (which is also Streep's real name), who is searching for answers about her son's death.

She's not the only one with suspicions: parents at the school are sceptical about the 'accident', as are the police, who are investigating the 'Monterey Five', as they're now known.

Liane Moriarty provided show creator David E Kelley with a 200-page novella outlining a plot for the second season, of which Kelley has said, "mostly we go deeper" into the stories of the women, notably Bonnie. The preternaturally chill yoga instructor has started to fray, and we'll discover more about her turbulent past with the arrival of her parents.

Celeste, too, is struggling to adapt to life after Perry, as she confronts her grief in therapy, while Madeline and Ed face marriage troubles over her past infidelity. Renata has new challenges with the school when a teacher tells Amabella about climate change, and Jane attempts to form a relationship with a co-worker, her first since her rape.

We can look forward to plenty more conflict - set photos revealed a tantalising scene where Madeline pelts an ice-cream cone at Mary Louise's head - and the cast have promised that the second season will measure up to the first. Kidman has argued that the characters "deserve their stories to be told beyond what was that first season". "We don't have to just be shut down and told, 'No, that was good. You did well and off you go now'. You actually get to explore them on a deeper level and explore the consequences and see their lives unfold in a much deeper way, and that's what was so exciting for me."

It looks like these seven episodes will really be it for Big Little Lies - although that's what they told us last time too.

"My idea is this is the end," Kelley said recently. "But everybody has now lectured me to never say never, so I'm not saying never."

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