By Darren Franich
June 05, 2019 at 04:11 PM EDT
Jennifer Clasen/HBO

“AHHHHHH!” yells Meryl Streep. “NOOOOOO!” yells Nicole Kidman. “Will somebody give a woman a MOMENT!” yells Laura Dern, flashing one middle finger through her Tesla’s sunroof and another middle finger out the window. Dern’s driving angry fast with no hands on the wheel, which sums up Big Little Lies season 2. Here’s an emotionally delicate miniseries fired through a T-shirt cannon into franchisehood.

More, more, more is the note creator David E. Kelley took from the acclaim Lies received in 2017. More main characters visit Robin Weigert’s therapist. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline works in real estate now, which means more coastal homes for the camera to worship. There’s more of Alexander Skarsgård’s abusive Perry, who lives via flashbacks, dreams, found footage. He’s dead; he’s everywhere. One year later, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) is in a guilt fugue over killing him, and his mom, Mary Louise (Streep), wants answers.

It’s fun to see Streep cross Oscar lightsabers with Witherspoon and Kidman. And it’s horrific watching Celeste’s (Kidman) residual trauma. She tells her little blond demon twins that their pummeling rapist dad was a “beautiful, wonderful man” — a chilling lie she almost believes. Kidman’s great, even if her saga feels worlds away from, like, Renata (Dern) and her husband (Jeffrey Nordling). They’re suffering 1-percenter economic setbacks you’d expect from lush prime-time trash. One second, Renata’s getting a photo shoot for “the cover of the number one woman’s magazine in the US of f—ing A.” The next, she’s declaring “I will NOT not be rich!” and that’s a moment of relative quiet.

Dern is very funny, Kidman is intensely moving. Between those twin peaks, the new activity can feel hit or miss. Kelley conceived season 2 with Liane Moriarty, who wrote the original novel. They’ve concocted a lot of business for the massive ensemble, and some plot threads fray, especially when it comes to the Monterey Five’s millennial moms.

Bonnie suffers the arrival of her mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox). So that’s two plotlines about pushy moms. I think that Kelley and Moriarty are attempting to react to a broader season 1 complaint. When Elizabeth arrives in Monterey, she notes: “I haven’t seen one other black person since I’ve been out here.” That line suggests the wrong kind of self-awareness, a way of acknowledging criticism without fully acting on it. And soon Elizabeth starts doing weird things with rocks, a touch of mysticism that just looks like writerly quirk run amok. Meanwhile, Shailene Woodley’s Jane is romancing Corey (Douglas Smith), the kind of surf-hippie dreamboat The O.C. spoofed last decade. Good lord, his name is Corey.

There’s a lot to enjoy, though. Director Andrea Arnold crafts a complicated portrait of women trying (maybe failing?) to get along. In the three episodes I’ve seen, Mary Louise is an amateur sleuth, popping up in other storylines via Very Special Guest Star narrative magic. But there’s lingering tension in her ongoing refusal to believe the worst about her dead son — and her corresponding willingness to distrust the women he hurt.

“There aren’t a lot of happy endings for people,” says Madeline, in a big speech that is also somehow about the Muppets. Big Little Lies was a great miniseries, one of my favorite shows of 2017. Was its happy ending the biggest little lie of all? This just-okay continuation forms a moral inquiry: What happens after women slay the toxic masculinity dragon? Life’s no better, surely, for poor Amabella (Ivy George), TV’s most doomed kid. Now the onetime bullying victim is a second grader suffering panic attacks over global warming. Pray for Amabella, friends, or bless her with your rocks. She’s the only future we’ve got.

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