‘Big Little Lies’ season 2 episode 1 review: Critical sass as Meryl Streep arrives in Monterey

Big Little Lies was an unlikely candidate for a second season given that the narrative in the first felt so self-contained and, well, complete. But we dropped straight back into the story on HBO and Sky Atlantic this week, so much so that the new instalment was billed not as season 2 episode 1, but ‘episode 8’.

There are a couple of major additions to the production as we resume. Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the first seven episodes of Big Little Lies and all eight episodes of Sharp Objects pretty much back-to-back, is presumably convalescing somewhere after this Herculean feat of directing, with Andrea Arnold taking over. The American Honey filmmaker is an exciting replacement, not that we should expect an auteurist touch from her as TV directing is invariably more about visual and tonal consistency across episodes. But the main draw this season is universally hated Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep, terrible as ever here as Mary-Louise, the mother of season 1’s fatally shoved Perry (Alexander Skarsgård).

Monterey is getting back to normality after So Much Drama at the Elvis and Audrey-themed trivia night. It’s all brass bands, cupcakes and singalong assemblies as a new term at the elementary school gets underway, giving the show a chance to dial down the emotional turmoil for a while and indulge its comedic side. Big Little Lies sometimes feels like what Desperate Housewives would have been like if it had been called Desperate Working Mothers and been written by Aaron Sorkin. This was an episode with a lighter tone, and one that set up new story paths for its leading women.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

Renata (Laura Dern), we found passive aggressively intimidating her daughter’s new teacher and posing for a ‘women in power’ magazine cover shoot. She seems happy, but her husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) is anything but, ploughing headfirst into a mid-life crisis and seen here sitting drunk at his model train set and feebly hugging a baseball bat. Jesus.

Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon) meanwhile is stunned to find her teenage daughter has developed a conscience. Abigail (Kathryn Newton) wants to save the world instead of going to college (classic), and we feel for Madeleine who knows the traps that can await a woman without a degree. “I don’t care about fucking homeless people!” wasn’t a great rebuttal though – time to put Ed (Adam Scott) in to bat.

Jane (Shailene Woodley) is feeling free now that Ziggy is no longer preschooler non grata, and has apparently been blasting the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack – dancing along the beach to Sufjan Stevens as she bumps into a new love interest. I’ll leave it up to the internet to decide whether it’s blasphemous to ever use “Mystery of Love” in film or television again after the glory of it in CBYMN.

Big Little Lies

Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) is coming to terms with having killed a man and been forced into a lie about it, while Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is struggling to adapt to life without Perry. Big Little Lies doesn’t shy away from hard truths, and as glad as Celeste is to be free from his tyranny, there are certain things about her husband she misses. Life is never simple.

So that’s where our leads, hilariously dubbed “The Monterey Five” by local gossips, stand as season 2 kicks off. At their heels will be Streep’s aforementioned Mary-Louise, who is very suspicious about the circumstances of her son’s death. It’s now clear why the show had to enlist an acting titan like Streep, as she’ll have to single-handedly take on Witherspoon, Kidman, Dern et al this season.

Mary-Louise has her work cut out, but seems to possess the acid tongue necessary for success in Monterey, a place where secrets last about as long as pots of Whole Foods environmentally-friendly face mask.

Big Little Lies is shown on HBO in the US and simulcast in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.