Big Little Lies season 2 on HBO: Bigger lies, and a terrifying Meryl Streep

Review: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and gang are back for a second round that engages despite lacking the most addictive part of the first one: a murder mystery.

Patricia Puentes Senior Editor, Movie and TV writer, CNET en Español
Writer and journalist from Barcelona who calls California home. She'll openly admit to having seen The Wire four times. She has a mild-to-severe addiction to chocolate and book adaptations to the screen (large or small). She's interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Guillermo del Toro and Kenneth Branagh but is still waiting to meet Emma Thompson and Kathryn Bigelow. She's lived in Paris, Los Angeles and Boston. Now she's amazed by Oakland's effortlessly cool vibe.
Patricia Puentes
4 min read
Big Little Lies, season 2

Shailene Woodley (Jane), Zoë Kravitz (Bonnie), Reese Witherspoon (Madeline), Nicole Kidman (Celeste) and Laura Dern (Renata).

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

I devoured Big Little Lies in less than a week. Liane Moriarty's novel is the perfect beach read, and was one of my two faithful companions during my last Hawaiian vacation -- my husband being the other.

The novel had been handed down by a friend who knows about my murder mystery addiction, and even though I trust her book tastes, I didn't feel like reading Big Little Lies at first. I had already seen the HBO adaptation with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. I knew who the killer was. I knew who the victim was. And I loved every minute of the show -- every song, every outfit Madeline (Witherspoon), Renata (Laura Dern), Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) or Celeste (Kidman) had worn. So what else was there?

And that's precisely the challenge the second season of Big Little Lies faces.

Before HBO confirmed the second season, the show was initially intended as a miniseries. So season 1 pretty much covered Moriarty's book: the mystery around a boozy school fundraiser that ends with a dead body.

The second season of Big Little Lies premieres Sunday, June 9 in the US, and will be simultaneously available on Sky Atlantic in the UK and Foxtel in Australia. Season 2 starts with a familiar opening credit sequence, set to the soulful notes of Michael Kiwanuka's Cold Little Heart, that immediately whisks you back to the enticing ruggedness of the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur's winding roads at sunset.

But this time there's no murder mystery to unfold. Instead, the new season deals with the aftermath of Perry's death and how each of the women -- Madeline, Celeste, Renata, Bonnie and Jane, the so-called Monterey Five -- cope with the consequences of their act and how it affects their everyday lives.

Big Little Lies, season 2

Meryl Streep in the second season of Big Little Lies.

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

The show opens on the first day of school, and everyone is getting by in their own way. Jane (Shailene Woodley) dances with her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) to Joan Jett's Bad Reputation. Madeline has a job as a real estate agent and can't suppress her road rage while driving Chloe (Darby Camp) to school. Renata seems to be on top of her career. Bonnie has spent the summer in Tahoe with her daughter Skye (Chloe Coleman) and husband Nathan (James Tupper), but he confides to Madeline that Bonnie is withdrawn -- meaning they're not having sex.

And Celeste's having a hard time. Not only does she have nightmares about her abusive husband, her grief-stricken mother-in-law Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) is staying with her and the twins (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti).

Streep makes for a terrifying mother-in-law. And if that wasn't enough, her Mary Louise has a profound dislike for short people. "I find little people to be untrustworthy," she disdainfully tells Madeline after noticing how short Celeste's friend is.

A character-driven season

All seven episodes of season 2 were directed by Andrea Arnold (American Honey), with Vallée serving as an executive producer this time. The story is from original author Moriarty and show creator David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal). HBO made available three episodes for this review.

Big Little Lies, season 2

Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley.

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

The soundtrack for the second season is peppered with tunes by Portishead, Cassandra Wilson and Sufjan Stevens,  yet somehow the songs feel less organically integrated and natural than in the first season, when the music was one of the defining elements. I thought it might be due to a change in music supervisors, but HBO points out Vallée was responsible for the majority of music choices for both seasons.

Fortunately, season 2 maintains the show's best ingredient: its portrait of everyday life through the lens of a very distinctive set of characters.

Characters like Madeline, who's horrified at her teenage daughter Abigail's (Kathryn Newton) plan to work for a homelessness startup instead of going to college. "I just think you can give money to some charity while you actually attend college," Madeline tells her. She's worried about Abigail repeating what she considers her own mistakes.

Renata also has some stellar moments this season, posing for a women's magazine photo shoot, rocking a Gucci fanny pack and uttering lines like, "I'm not gonna not be rich!"

Then there's the moment one character has an anxiety attack brought on by a conversation about climate change that ends up being quite heated, as the subject of our planet's health tends to be.

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All of these are quintessential Big Little Lies moments. In the absence of a gripping central mystery, it's these scenes that keep you hooked, as the only intrigue comes from how these women will keep their collective house of cards from falling apart.

Will I watch the rest of the second season of Big Little Lies with the same compulsiveness that I ingested the first season or the book? Probably not. But even if I'm not hooked by the need to discover a killer this time around, I'm still completely seduced by the lives of these complex women trying to raise their children, fulfill their passions, love and be loved, and -- if possible -- also be happy.

This time round there may not be a whodunit, but I'm far from done with the story.

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Originally published May 31.