Big Little Lies finally gave in to satire
The first season of Big Little Lies was a clever trap. The show took what would have otherwise been an easily satirized narrative about affluent women and complicated it with their trauma; The Week's Lili Loofbourow succinctly called it "a kind of double helix of satire and sincerity" in her review. The success of this structure hinged in part on the use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the withholding of information, and the inclusion of misleading police interviews with gossipy neighbors. By shining a light on the audience's superficial presumptions about the "Monterey Five," Big Little Lies, in the end, proved its own point.
The second season, then, might seem superfluous. We already know the backstory to the murder of Celeste's husband, Perry, and it was long ago revealed that nothing in Monterey is as simple as it seems. No longer needing to twist the viewer's presumptions against them, Big Little Lies has lost the earnestness that helped balance season one. In doing so — and as was especially evident in Sunday's third episode — the series has caved into parodying itself.
That doesn't necessarily mean Big Little Lies is not fun to watch anymore; it is maybe even more so because it surrenders at times into complete fan service, complete with a meme-ready Laura Dern and a mousey and dangerous Meryl Streep. Largely, though, Andrea Arnold — the accomplished English director who took over this season from Jean-Marc Vallée — dispenses with the structural tools of her predecessor save for a handful of flashbacks. Yet even these are returns to scenes that we've already seen and that (at least so far) have revealed nothing new. Instead, Big Little Lies' second season is focused on the central question of if "the lie" is going to catch up to the women involved.
The show's sincerity this time around resides in explorations of PTSD, the guilt associated with escaping domestic violence, and trust between spouses. These are heavy questions, but also quieter ones than those raised in the first season, and their tension plays out primarily in bedside conversations and therapy sessions. Without the backdrop of something as big as a murder mystery, and with all the surprising character reversals now in the rearview mirror, audiences are left with a more straightforward version of the lifestyle porn that the first season had been commenting on. There is less to complicate, say, the multi-million dollar mansions on the ocean, the helicopter parenting, or the privilege of being able to afford a therapist.
The fracturing of this protective shell of "likability," then, opens the characters in the narrative back up to mockery. This is best exemplified by season two's treatment of Renata (Laura Dern), who was written from the beginning to be the most overtly obnoxious of the Monterey Five. Renata was formerly offset by her lack of fulfillment (and friends) despite "having it all" as a woman, balancing both a successful career in a man's world and parenting a young daughter. We see a glimpse of that nuance in the season two premiere, when she rants: "I'm so tired of those shots of women [on magazines]. I mean, they're in power, right? They own banks, and they're all, like, demure. Bulls--t."
But in Big Little Lies' second season, Renata's central conflict has narrowed to the fact that her husband committed fraud, threatening their shared fortune as well as all the hard work Renata put into clawing herself out of poverty. Valid enough, although it's hard to exactly feel, well, much of anything about her desperation, particularly when it's played up to be so ghoulish. Tellingly, Renata dancing to "It's My House," Renata screaming "I will not not be rich" at her husband, and Renata flipping off drivers through her convertible's sunroof all became memes. The show uses her type — desperate and rich — and instead of subverting it again, pushes it for humor.
The exaggeration of archetypes extends to Otter Bay Elementary, where the second grade class is reading Charlotte's Web. But in hippie-dippie Monterey, E. B. White's story of the sacrifices we make for friends is instead taught as a climate change metaphor. During one of the strangest and most hilarious moments in the series to date, the teacher asks the class why "Charlotte didn't want Wilber to get eaten" to which the students intone syllable-by-syllable "su-stain-a-bil-i-ty." The follow up question: "How many gallons of water does it take to make a single pound of sausage?" prompts the response "a thousand," and so on. Understandably, Renata's daughter Amabella has a panic attack over her fear of "the end of the world."
The whole set-up sounds like the premise of a great Onion article, which is maybe not the note you want to be striking on a show that's also trying to confront more serious domestic trials. By leaning into exaggeration this season, though, Big Little Lies has made its more sober elements feel like afterthoughts to jokes about the ridiculousness of Californians and self-absorbed stay-at-home moms.
The first season of Big Little Lies had been smart while also trashy, tragic while also quite funny. The second season, in an attempt to justify its own continued existence, leans harder on its comedic elements at the expense of its protagonists. With the season not yet over (it hasn't been shared in full with critics yet, either), it's hard to say if there is, once again, more than meets the eye in Monterey.