The disappointing second series of Big Little Lies went out with a whimper

After such a great first season, it was surprising to see how sloppy the writing became in series two.

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This review contains spoilers for the final episode of Big Little Lies series two.

The Big Little Lies finale (9pm, Monday 22 July) was enough to drive a person crazy. Would the glossy fibs of the Monterey Five hold, or would Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) finally confess to having pushed Perry, the abusive husband of Celeste (Nicole Kidman), to his death at the end of the first season? In the end – if you haven’t yet gazed upon the bounteous expanses of Madeline’s kitchen island for a last time, consider this your spoiler alert – we weren’t told. The women pitched up at the cop shop together, all solidarity and heels – and then the titles rolled. Gah! The word is that no third season is planned, so it seems we’ll never find out now if an incarcerated Bonnie can transform the lives of her fellow inmates with a sleep apnoea yoga workshop; if the shock of Celeste’s sentence for perverting the course of justice proves to be such that her top lip actually moves; if Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) insists on conjugal visits from her porpoise-like husband Ed (Adam Scott) as part of her plea bargain.

But I also have other, more banal questions. What is it that Ed does for a living, sporadically, in the privacy of his home office? Might it have anything to do with the fact that he always looks like he has eaten one too many kiwi fruit? And what about Celeste’s sex life? How did I miss the fact that with Perry gone, she was frantically notching her bed post? When this was revealed during the custody battle for her sons with her mother-in-law, Mary-Louise (Meryl Streep, somehow simultaneously channelling both Patricia Highsmith and Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote), you could have knocked me down with one of the skinny whatevers this lot are always just about to drink.I saw one nameless hunk move silently across the cashmere tundra that is Celeste’s bedroom, but the others…?

And what about Mary-Louise? The teeth, the hair, the glasses! A friend of mine found Streep deeply creepy in the role, but I wonder if she wasn’t secretly playing it for laughs. If Kidman was about as expressive as an egg, Streep spent every episode crouched like some manic squirrel trying to remember where it had buried its nuts.

All this is before we even get to Renata (Laura Dern) and her flares. Never before have I seen trousers used to such dramatic effect: their hems appeared in silhouette like flames at her ankles. I would have liked more of Renata’s feckless husband, though it was quite delicious when the nanny revealed she was owed money for “stress management” at the couple’s bankruptcy hearing (and no, this had nothing to do with their several dishwashers).

Flashes of wit like this – another came when Ed’s old flame announced that she had a bucket list and a masturbation list, and that he was on both – reminded you of the pleasures of the first series of BLL, and of how pale the second seemed beside it: all psychobabble and soap bubbles. The gap between what we were told about the characters, and what we felt about them, grew exponentially over the two series to the point where I ceased to give a toss about their happiness, let alone their pain. My fascination was reserved for their clothes, their houses, their weird, cauterised externals (make-up in bed; wine glasses as big as Victorian specimen jars).

I see that the series’ writer David E. Kelley had backed himself into a cul-de-sac, albeit one lined with architecture porn (we already knew who had killed Perry, and why). But it was still surprising to see how sloppy the writing became: how low on acerbity and drama. “Don’t go there, judge-y judger!” yelled Renata at Mary-Louise, when the latter made sly mention of nanny-gate (how striking that a series championed by its women stars for its determination to put them centre stage should make its least sympathetic character the only one with a serious career). This line was supposed to convey her rage, so all-consuming, it had rendered her unable properly to speak. But it also captured something about the series as a whole: a melodrama that didn’t have the courage to go the full camp; that puttered and faltered and finally fell over the Californian cliffs and into the sea. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation