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Extraordinarily Ordinary: ‘Big Little Lies’ Becomes a Regular, Old TV Show

In 2017, the HBO miniseries, packed to the gills with massive celebrities, was proof of the heights TV could reach. Two years later, the show isn’t a miniseries at all, with a surprise second season that both transcends and adheres to the norms of traditional television.

HBO/Ringer illustration

Much like the episodes they introduce, the opening credits to Big Little Lies second season are an ever-so-slightly-remixed version of their predecessor, designed to prime the audience for familiar thrills. Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” is back as the theme song, albeit pitched up and slightly stripped down. An Avengers-like cluster of A-list actresses has reunited to populate the cast, now introduced one at a time with straightforward billings—nothing so high-concept as a procession of Audrey Hepburns. The montage ends with a shot of the five key players walking in a slow-motion line across a beach, a formation instantly recognizable to TV fans everywhere. Clad in luxury outerwear and well-chosen accessories, they look like the cast of CSI: Miami after a particularly fruitful trip to Bal Harbour.

On a show as obsessed with aesthetics as Big Little Lies, such small adjustments carry larger meaning. As it turns out, the renewed emphasis on the celebrities involved and the chemistry between their characters accurately foreshadows what’s to come. In its first incarnation, Big Little Lies was a singular event, building toward a conclusion preordained by the Liane Moriarty novel on which it was based. In its second, Big Little Lies has transitioned from a singular TV phenomenon to a long-form, multivolume story that’s easily recognizable as a TV show. It’s just a TV show that happens to star some of the most famous and charismatic women in the world.

Calling Big Little Lies’ second season an act of fan service is like calling Reese Witherspoon blond or newcomer Meryl Streep an Oscar nominee. It’s not a criticism; it’s an immutable fact, as intrinsic to Big Little Lies’ identity as luxury crossover vehicles or moody establishing shots of the ocean. Back in 2017, the people loved the volatile combination of Monterey mothers, deeply held secrets, and petty disputes that made Big Little Lies such an addictive combination of farce and tragedy. So much so that star-producers Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, screenwriter David E. Kelley, and Moriarty herself have reunited to give them exactly what they want. (Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who went on to helm another star-led limited HBO series in Sharp Objects, has been replaced by Fish Tank and American Honey auteur Andrea Arnold.) What the season sometimes lacks in thematic cohesion, it often makes up for in this clarity of purpose. Big Little Lies is back to deliver a bumper crop of memes and trophies. Allocate your investments accordingly.

Big Little Lies’ first batch of episodes was framed around a mysterious death at a school fundraiser, the main plot unfolding through fragmentary flashbacks and snide commentary from supporting players. The second lacks such a unifying event or clear destination. Instead, the story, for which Kelley and Moriarty share credit, picks through the pieces left behind by Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard), the abusive husband of Kidman’s Celeste and rapist of single mother Jane (Shailene Woodley). How is Celeste grappling with the tainted memories of her marriage, or the needs of her newly fatherless kids? What about Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the typically blissed-out hippie who ultimately pushed Perry down the stairs? Or Madeline (Witherspoon), now finally forced to reckon with the infidelity she’d distracted herself from with various blood feuds?

Many of the answers to these questions could have been extrapolated from the clues we were given in Season 1. (To sum it up: not well, bitch!) But Big Little Lies follow-up is less interested in exploring larger machinations than showcasing the smaller moments they enable. Some motifs emerge: how these characters’ upbringings influence their behavior as parents; the way children tend to pick up on, and reveal to the rest of the world, their families’ hidden selves. As of the three episodes shown to critics in advance, though, the season still feels like a collection of moments reverse-engineered from last season’s highlight reel. Sandberg-adjacent VC queen Renata Klein (Laura Dern) has another epic freakout. Madeline’s anxieties find another hilariously imperfect venue. Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert) once again dispenses much-needed perspective in an ASMR-like monotone. Somewhere around the time Madeline straight-up asks her older daughter to get her some wine, you realize Big Little Lies isn’t even trying to hide its self-awareness.

Enter Meryl Streep. The actress was always going to be the new season’s trump card, practically the only way the show could one-up its own star power. But the season’s repetitive tendencies quickly show why she’s needed. Mary Louise Wright is a wild card, a monkey wrench in the so-called Monterey Five’s efforts to move past what they’ve done. Like Madeline’s prepster or Renata’s #girlboss, Mary Louise hews to an archetype of her own—that of the old-money, boarding-school-educated San Francisco WASP. Yet she’s also unpredictable, as unnerving to the other moms as it must have been for the actresses to perform opposite Meryl Freaking Streep. Inevitably, Mary Louise replaces Renata as Madeline’s instinctive archnemesis. And in keeping with the season’s undisguised M.O., the women’s antipathy is less rooted in a specific disagreement than the anticipated joys of watching Streep dress Witherspoon down, Miranda Priestly–style, as a “wanter.” Why bother lighting the fuse if the sparks will fly without it?

Other developments are less a response to fan enthusiasms than fan complaints. Prior to her decisive, not-entirely-earned role in Perry’s death, Bonnie existed largely in relation to Madeline, to whose ex-husband she’s now married. What few scenes Bonnie got separate from the rest of the cast consisted of conversations about managing Madeline’s reactions, a sort of inverted Bechdel test her character routinely failed. This time, Bonnie’s social isolation and personal identity are made explicit, a process catalyzed by the arrival of her mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox). While welcome, the move still feels like too little, too late, a transparent and clumsy attempt to fix flaws that shouldn’t have needed pointing out.

The mere existence of Big Little Lies was once proof of how far television had come. Three years after the premiere of True Detective, the miniseries solidified what Matthew McConaughey’s revelatory turn had started. Not only could TV be a home for movie stars; it could be a home for many of the biggest stars in the world at the same time, operating at the height of their powers. (Of the project’s principals, only Kelley had a background on the small screen, a hedge against the pacing issues that often plague film artists’ transition to the new medium.) Big Little Lies sufficiently upped the ante on Movie Star TV that its success has yet to be matched, even by deep-pocketed competitors like Netflix. The show has many imitators, from thrilling to disappointing, but no true peers.

Though Big Little Lies second season may be less ambitious in its storytelling, it’s arguably an even more significant expansion of what TV can be—or rather, what can be TV. The movie star–fronted miniseries has become a borderline cliché, but Big Little Lies is no longer a miniseries at all. It’s a full-fledged series, with many of the plotting tics that come with turning a runaway hit into a lasting institution. Cliffhangers are unpacked; Celeste’s plight has gone from cathartic release to chronic wound. Character growth is, frustratingly if realistically, walked back; Madeline’s relationship with her older daughter hasn’t magically healed, even after the teenager agreed not to sell her virginity online. Subplots are manufactured; Renata’s and Jane’s, in particular, feel like the results of asking what could occupy these characters while the main conflict rages on.

All of these are natural, commonplace consequences, only applied to an extraordinary thing. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern aren’t just making TV anymore. They’re making a standard, if sporadic, multiseason drama, as telling a sign of the medium’s boosted prominence as their arrival was in the first place. But while this is not an isolated incident—Witherspoon is signed on to make at least two seasons of Apple’s The Morning Show, due out sometime this fall—it may be a sign of things to come. The faces make Big Little Lies exceptional; the tendencies it falls prey to make Big Little Lies more ordinary than its creators may like to believe.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.