The expectations going into the second season of “Big Little Lies” — a season that initially was never going to exist, before the first become such a success — were perhaps insurmountably high. Its all-star cast added yet another unparalleled performer in Meryl Streep, and with original director and editor Jean-Marc Vallee busy with “Sharp Objects,” acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Arnold stepped in. And while she and Vallee share a fondness for dreamy landscapes and wistful closeups, the assumption was that hiring her to steer the entire season meant that she might put her stamp on it in a way, or at least lend a new color to an already rich palette. What a new Indiewire report suggests, however, is that Arnold never got the chance to do so — which is frankly unsurprising given how “Big Little Lies” season 2 has so far unfolded, and therefore a real shame.
There’s no saying just how different the season might have been if Arnold had the kind of control she might have expected when taking the job, or how much Vallee specifically managed to change when he took over post-production. Still, having watched all but the finale, the biggest culprit of the season’s decline (and in fact the series’ weakest component overall) isn’t the direction, but the writing. And one of the most damning details of the Indiewire report is its suggestion that the new edit scrubbed the season of Arnold’s particular “grace notes,” especially her way of filming between the lines on the page. (See: a scene like the one in her film “American Honey” in which the cast sings the titular song together in a car, each of them obviously experiencing it differently through their expressions alone — which, not for nothing, is a particularly good example of the kind of “people have revelations while driving to a specific song” scene that “Big Little Lies” lives and breathes by.) With vanishingly few exceptions, that Season 2 dulled Arnold’s specific voice and more wholly embraced that of writer David E. Kelley is obvious from watching it.
Kelley, best known for network procedurals like “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal,” has always favored a blunt approach to the “Big Little Lies” scripts. That can sometimes pay off; you don’t get characters like Laura Dern’s pointed Renata or Reese Witherspoon’s insistent Madeline without some seriously forthright writing. But other times, the writing’s clunky attempts to be cutting and memorable crowd the screen and blur the lines between satire and reality too much for the moment in question to stand on its own. This shortcoming was also present in Season 1; I spent many scenes in the early episodes wondering if Kelley’s ever seen two women speaking to each other out in the wild without a camera to capture it. The difference is that in Season 2, the lack of a cohesive directing and editing vision has made the scripts’ weaknesses doubly obvious.
What used to be an insightful series about the ways women bond and fracture in order to survive has become a disjointed montage of greatest hits. (Did you like Dern screaming in Season 1? Boy, does Season 2 have more Dern screams for you!) Most every episode feels like it was engineered backwards from two main concerns: “what do we want to see happen opposite Meryl Streep?” and “would this moment make a good meme?” The attempts to shade out Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) past has devolved into a muddled depiction of childhood abuse and vague mysticism (an especially troubling combination given that the root is her mother, one of the few women of color on the show). Scenes repeat, telling the same story of the same dynamic. Potentially moving moments — Madeline mourning her carefree marriage, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) grappling with grief and longing, Jane (Shailene Woodley) trying and failing to reclaim her sexuality after trauma — rarely get time to breathe. (Much has been made of how good the “Big Little Lies” cast is; less has been said about how consistently they elevate Kelley’s material to make it something far more nuanced and deeply affecting than it is as written.)
Whatever the issues were between the directors, all of these weaknesses are ultimately down to the scripts. And if Arnold’s unfiltered version sought to bring out the subtleties of the moments in between — the unspoken trauma and panic and understanding that made a scene like Season 1’s crucial death resonate so hard without a single one of Kelley’s words — there’s no doubt that it would have been a more compelling version than the one we’re seeing now.