Big Little Lies Forgot The Two Most Important Words in Its Title

Posted on July 22, 2019

Big Little Lies ended its at-one-point unexpected second season in a somewhat unexpected manner, by more or less shrugging off every one of the season’s plotlines in the last few minutes. But first, it had some courtroom shenanigans to get through, in some of the silliest legal scenes we think we’ve ever seen.

It’s not a crime (you’ll pardon the phrasing) for a scripted drama to use courtroom scenes to make dramatic points in a manner that might make any lawyers watching at home tear the hair out. Like anything else, courtroom scenes can be mined not only for dramatic effect, but to define characters, underline themes and move the plot forward. It may make legal purists crazy to see some of the silliness that went on in that courtroom, but there’s no denying the scenes gave Celeste the opportunity to move forward as a character, with a more firm resolve and a more defined sense of self. As silly as her cross-examination of Mary Louise was, it allowed all of Celeste’s issues and problems to be addressed and gave her the kind of character moment her story needed to conclude. And besides, it was just great fun to watch Streep and Kidman, two of the finest actresses of their respective generations, go at each other, hammer and tongs; Streep’s squint-eyed accusatory hellspawn of a mother-in-law up against Kidman’s wide-eyed fury and desperation to be understood as a good mother. It was good stuff – and fun to watch, mostly.

No, it wasn’t the fantasy courtroom drama that rankled, it was the way so many of the plotlines of the season were wrapped up at the last second, giving the impression that every one of them weren’t really problems for these characters so much as they were ways for the script to get them to do things.  Sure, it was fun to see Laura Dern wreck a roomful of toy trains in yet another bout of righteous rage against her piece-of-shit husband, but the fact remains that Renata would have likely left her husband long before this moment. At the very least, she would’ve left after the nanny affair revelation. There was no reason to keep them together until the last minutes of the show except to give her as many scenes as possible where she vented her rage at him because that’s the kind of scene at which Laura Dern excels. Just as Reese excels at being high-strung and mean-girl; just as Shailene excels at being twitchy and unsure and just as Zoe excels at being beautifully morose. If nothing else, it can’t be denied that the show played to its respective actresses’ strengths, which resulted in a string of entertaining or well-acted scenes.

But the season as a whole suffered from lowered stakes and a bunch of issues that felt like they were being blown out of proportion or stretched to their snapping points merely to give everyone something to do, from Renata’s overly long trip out the door of her marriage, to Madeline and Ed’s marital stress (not to mention his potential infidelity or Abigail’s lack-of-college plans, both of which went nowhere), to Bonnie’s ongoing depression and mystical mother issues, which either resolved themselves or went unexplained, to Jane’s post-trauma reactions and her sudden ability in the last five minutes of the season to just get over them. Don’t even get us started on the utterly pointless Ed vs. Nathan war. And despite our willingness to forgive legal silliness in a melodrama, the entire premise of the season – that the Monterey Five were caught in a damning lie that’s destroying them all – hinges on accepting that they couldn’t have quite easily proven self-defense in the killing of Perry Wright and, given their wealth and social standing, would not likely have seen a moment of jail time. All of those ladies can afford killer lawyers (Celeste’s shitty one notwithstanding; that one should forego her fees if she has any sense of shame) and the looming spectre of jail time that hung over them all season seemed a little silly.

None of this can be discussed without pausing to acknowledge that the season’s director Andrea Arnold was railroaded by last season’s director (and one of this season’s executive producers) Jean-Marc Vallée, who took over the editing of the episodes, and by some accounts, completely tore apart her original vision for the season in favor of making it adhere more closely to his own style. It’s a sour footnote for the season and it appears to be the most likely reason why it was all so uneven and went off in a series of narrative dead ends.

It felt as if, in all that behind-the-scenes creative drama, folks in charge decided to put all their hopes on Meryl’s performance to carry the show. And to be fair, it nearly did, as she offered up a rarity in the Streep canon; a wholly unlikeable woman to the point of coming across repulsive to those around her, yet one who was perfectly versed in the art of being passive-aggressively polite in a more or less socially acceptable way. There was SO much going on under the surface of that pinched, accusatory face. You knew Mary Louise had secret pains and secret shames, but rather than elucidate what they were, the show’s creators wisely let Meryl show us what such things had done to her character.

Even so, a spectacular Streep performance isn’t enough to elevate an entire season of television to high worthiness. The unevenness of the scripts, the shifting character motivations and occasionally inexplicable actions, the focus on husbands feuding with each other or mothers practicing some sort of ritualistic spiritualism meant that we couldn’t get enough of a spotlight on Janes’s emotions or Bonnie’s, upon which the entire direction of the story rested. Celeste’s family issues still held our attention, but Madeline’s simply weren’t interesting and Renata’s too often felt like a setup for yet another fan-service scene of Laura Dern going The Full Dern. Instead, poor Zoe was forced to sulk through her scenes or give monologues to characters in comas. Shailene played the same scenes over and over – an awkward attempt at kissing, a painful conversation with Ziggy – and, like Bonnie, seemed to exist mostly apart from the so-called Monterey Five. There were vague attempts at showcasing how the friendship between the Five was tentative and strained at best, but there seemed to be no thought given to the idea that matters of age difference, wealth, social status and race were likely to drive them apart rather than a half-hearted lie that never really needed to be told in the first place.

And in the end, that’s the real problem with this second season of a show that’s nominally all about lies: the lies were weak, a little pointless, and not particularly compelling. What’s the point of Big Little Lies if it’s not all about fascinating, dramatic lies? It’s like a season of The Love Boat where everyone mildly dislikes each other and they’re all miles from the ocean.

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