Big Little Lies season one boasted a glitterbomb cast headed by Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon (also a producer on the series). How could the glossy HBO/Sky Atlantic murder-mystery possibly raise the ante as it returned for a long-awaited second run? Easy – by recruiting three-times Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep and giving her the firecracker role of a grieving mother who suspects her daughter-in-law (Kidman) might be complicit in the death of her beloved son.
Streep puts in a quietly cackling performance as hellish in-law Mary Louise. She’s freshly arrived in the ladies-who-brunch playground of Monterey California: a land of swimming pools with sea views and of fitted kitchens so huge that you could stage an impromptu five-a-side match in the open prairie between the breakfast bar and the mega-fridge.
Mary Louise is in town as emotional support for Nicole Kidman’s Celeste (back with the world’s heaviest fringe). What she doesn’t know, but clearly suspects, is that her darling Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) didn’t really fall to his untimely demise but was pushed down a flight of stairs. At one point she breaks down screaming at a family meal. Immediately afterwards she voices her distrust of Celeste for not likewise shrieking her pain from the rooftops.
As with its Emmy-garlanded first season, the returning Big Little Lies – created by David E Kelley of Boston Legal and Ally McBeal fame/notoriety – expertly blends class and kitsch. The Monterey backdrop remains stunning, shot as it is in the high-woozy style of a fragrance commercial. Yet the series has a heart of purist pulp, the gossipy goings-on at the school gate and at the artisan coffee queue making this a cousin twice-removed from Desperate Housewives and even from an old-fashioned British soap (appearing in flashback Skarsgård is a cartoon villain in the tradition of Corrie’s Richard Hillman). It’s silly and overwrought but lacquered in the trappings of prestige television.
The difference, of course, is Coronation Street doesn’t have Meryl Streep stealing the show. She plays Mary Louise as a low-key monster, though the first of seven episodes leaves us guessing as to whether she’s in the same class as her wicked offspring. Perry beat and emotionally manipulated Celeste, raped Shailene Woodley’s single mother Jane (spoiler warning: he’s the dad) and ultimately paid for his crimes when shoved down those steps by Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz).
Months later, the five women who witnessed his demise – Celeste, Jane, Bonnie, alpha-mom Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and business bigwig Renata (Laura Dern) – are still processing what happened. Prattling locals – the curtains in billionaire’s row, California are as twitchy as anywhere else – have dubbed them the “Monterey Five”. And Bonnie has withdrawn into herself, wrestling with fantasies about going to the police and confessing.
Celeste, for her part, continues to be stalked by Perry in her dreams as she once was in life (helpfully Mary Louise is hovering about eavesdropping as her daughter-in-law shouts potentially incriminating things in her sleep). The other conspirators, however, seem more or less unaffected. Madeline, for instance, is chiefly concerned with rebellious daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton), declaring she’d rather work with the homeless than to go university. Adam Scott, James Tupper and Jeffrey Nordling are back too, playing husbands at various registers on the dopey-dad spectrum.
With soft furnishings so gorgeous that you could weep, Instagram-hued vistas and school runs drenched in guilt and paranoia, Big Little Lies has returned with all its winning attributes intact. As both hate-watch (how you’d love to see someone smash a wine-glass on one of those flawless verandas) and hokey mystery, it’s a rollicking success. So much so that Meryl Streep chomping on the scenery is merely the Oscar-grade cherry on top.
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