Spoilers for the first season ahead.
There's been a lot going on behind the scenes of "Big Little Lies" that place it in an unflattering light. Andrea Arnold is credited as the director, but apparently didn't have creative control. David E. Kelly and Liane Moriarty wrote every episode, but this run of episodes never shakes the feeling of being a wholly unnecessary sequel to the original miniseries. The performances remain strong, and Meryl Streep's involvement is treat, but they're in service of a project that never quite comes together.
The second series of "Big Little Lies" examines the aftermath of Perry's death on the lives and relationships of the "Monterey Five." Most of the big fireworks involve Celeste and Perry's mother, Mary Louise (Streep) becoming embroiled in a tug of war over the parenting of the twins. Meanwhile, Bonnie reconnects with her mother Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), Madeline and Ed are in crisis over her infidelity, Renata discovers she's been living in a house of cards, and Jane is dating a co-worker, Corey (Douglas Smith). Each storyline is fairly separate from the others, though the protagonists often meet up for clandestine huddles to discuss the continuing progress of the investigation into Perry's death.
Over the course of seven episodes, we watch each story play out, some in very straightforward terms, some obliquely. Celeste and Mary Louise's battles feel like David E. Kelley falling back on standard legal drama tropes. The implosion of Renata's life is showy and over-the-top. Bonnie's story is very internal and the closest to Andrea Arnold's usual style - and sadly, the most affected by unfortunate cuts and excisions. I like that each story feels tailored to each actress, so Laura Dern gets to raise hell, Shailene Woodley gets a sweet romance, and Nicole Kidman gets some showstopper monologues. Compared to the first season, however, it feels like there's much less going on, especially under the surface.
Maybe it's because the characters are far more transparent now - we know everyone is feeling guilt and pressure from being complicit in the big lie. There aren't many personal secrets left to uncover, and the few that do come to light feel comparatively minor. The conceit of everyone maintaining this veneer of perfection is mostly gone from the show - the gossipy Greek chorus framing device has been removed, and there's little outside pressure on the characters from the community, aside from a single bullying incident. Big issues are simplified down to the point where everything feels very telegraphed, and there aren't many surprises. Then there are the loose ends everywhere. Kathryn Newton's Abigail shows up in the first episode to pick a fight with Madeline and then disappears for the rest of the season. One has to wonder why they bothered bringing her back at all.
A lot of the controversy revolves around Andrea Arnold's work being handed over to a team of editors who were tasked with making it look as much like Jean Marc Vallee's work on the first season as possible. The trouble is that while the two directors' styles may look superficially similar, there are some significant differences. A big one is the pacing. Multiple episodes feel like they run short or have been truncated, because sequences created with Arnold's more lyrical output in mind have been rejiggered to fit Vallee's staccato editing style. It's all very watchable, but you can't get away from the sense that something's not quite right.
So what's left? The performances offer some reasons to watch. Meryl Streep makes Mary Louise into a fantastically hateable villain, a soft-spoken manipulator and rug-sweeper full of terrible insinuations. She spends the first several episodes creeping around the edges of the story and providing some great moments of tension. Laura Dern is fully unleashed as Renata's life falls into shambles, and there are some wonderfully entertaining rants and rages to enjoy. Nicole Kidman remains the show's MVP, holding together a lot of the weaker material. And there's an awful lot of weaker material.
In the end, HBO got more "Big Little Lies," but without taking the necessary time or creative steps to let the creators make something on the same level as the miniseries. Instead, we got a compromised, oddly-formed new batch of episodes that aren't without their charms, but hardly worth all the fuss.