TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Big Little Lies" was one of the most acclaimed TV series in recent years winning eight Emmys for its story of wealthy suburbanites dealing with sexual abuse and murder. The new season, Season 2, starts Sunday on HBO with nearly all of the original cast and one enormous new addition. Our critic at large John Powers says if you like watching world-class actresses, this show is not to be missed.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Sequels have come to seem inescapable in movies and TV where the commercial logic is to keep a franchise going, even if it has nowhere to go. That's why I was leery of Season 2 of "Big Little Lies." I'd been a fan of the original HBO series, a sneaky deep blend of satire and mystery that built to a satisfying finale in which its sexually violent villain is murdered and the show's five heroines testify that his death was an accident. The story was over, but the show was too successful to end, and so we have Season 2 set a few months after the murder.
We're back in the entitled coastal enclave around Monterey with its yoga classes, photo-op real estate and overbearing parents who treat the local grade school as their personal fiefdom. As a new school year begins, our heroines, now dubbed the Monterey Five, are dealing with the emotional aftermath of their big, big lie about the murder as well as the littler untruths of daily life. The tireless busybody Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, has alienated her loving but prickly husband, played by Adam Scott. Nicole Kidman's Celeste is grappling with the death of her abusive husband, whom she can't get out of her head. Rape victim single mom Jane - that's Shailene Woodley - must cope with her son knowing who his dad really was.
Tech exec Renata, a character so deliciously histrionic that she's played by Laura Dern, is riding high until her husband's business dealings go bad. Meanwhile, Zoe Kravitz's New Age-y (ph) character Bonnie, who actually did the killing, is in a funk over taking a human life. Now, the key to any sequel is to keep things the same yet add something extra. In an ultra-male movie like "John Wick 3," which is great by the way, that something extra is bigger guns and even more killing. In a show like "Big Little Lies," that something extra takes a very different form. The artillery they wheel out is the biggest, most intimidating gun of all - Meryl Streep, who isn't about to be shown up by the show's tremendous cast. Sporting vaguely rodential teeth, she's effortlessly dominating as Mary Louise, the murdered man's grieving, slyly aggressive mother who doubts the official version of her son's death and refuses to believe that he was a sexual thug.
Here, Madeline approaches Mary Louise at an outdoor coffee shack.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG LITTLE LIES")
REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Mary Louise? Hi. Madeline.
MERYL STREEP: (As Mary Louise) Madeline.
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Yes.
STREEP: (As Mary Louise) It's so nice to see you again.
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) I'm Celeste's friend. Yes.
STREEP: (As Mary Louise) How have you been?
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) I'm good. Good. The kids are good. How are you?
STREEP: (As Mary Louise) I can't complain. Actually, I can. My son is dead.
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) But Celeste tells me that you continue to be so helpful with her and the boys and...
STREEP: (As Mary Louise) She should just get a proper housekeeper.
You're very short.
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Excuse me?
STREEP: (As Mary Louise) I don't mean it in a negative way.
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Oh.
STREEP: (As Mary Louise) Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.
POWERS: Mary Louise flutters around the Monterey Five, an unsettling presence who keeps turning up like Lieutenant Columbo and keeps strewing slivers of glass into everything she says.
Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, the original "Big Little Lies" took a seemingly idyllic community of suburban moms and showed the infernal stuff festering beneath it. This wasn't the most original idea ever, but the show definitely pulled you in with alluring surfaces, only to confront you with disturbing truths about sexual violence. The whole thing whooshed along with a mysterious sense of impending doom.
With the mysteries revealed, Moriarty and screenwriter David E. Kelley - plus a new director, Andrea Arnold - have adopted a slow-burn strategy this time out, at least in the three episodes screened for critics. Steeped in shame, anger and melancholy, the story is moodier and less electric. While this may ultimately prove deeper, it's initially less gripping. Although Kidman is terrific at capturing Celeste's confused sense of loss, for instance, these feelings are less dramatically compelling than Season 1's Emmy-winning portrait of a woman who fears but also desires her husband's sexualized violence.
That said, the sequel is worth seeing for its ensemble of leading ladies - maybe the greatest in TV history - who bring invention and life to every scene. Dern's Renata and Woodley's Jane are thinly drawn, but you scarcely notice because the actresses flesh them out with such skill.
I'd like to give a particular shoutout to Witherspoon, who, though the prime mover of the series, never got as much praise as she deserved for her smart, funny performance as Madeline, a woman with so many bees in her bonnet she might as well wear a hive. Controlling and insecure, Madeline is the show's glue and most enjoyable character. I'd cheerfully watch a series about her sparring with the school principal, bickering with her teenage daughter, yelling at random drivers on the road and trying to save her marriage. "Big Little Lies 3," anyone?
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new season of "Big Little Lies," which begins on HBO Sunday.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we'll close with a song that had special meaning for people who had loved ones that had left to fight the war. This is Billie Holiday singing "I'll Be Seeing You." It's a recording from 1944, the same year as D-Day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE SEEING YOU")
BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces all day through - in that small cafe, the park across the way, the children's carousel, the chestnut trees, the wishing well. I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day, in everything that's light and gay. I'll always think of you that way. I'll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new. I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.