The HBO drama seemed to be shunning the soap opera sensibility that made Season 1 such a success, says Willa Paskin. "The show needed something simultaneously higher-minded and trashier: deeper emotional insight brought about by a seething crucible of plot," says Paskin. She adds: "The show’s low-key, anticlimactic finale revealed the season’s reliance on character to be a fear of something else: the twists and turns that might be mistaken for melodrama. That kind of soapy beach read–iness might, of course, be mistaken for a kind of essential girliness and triviality. All the behind-the-scenes shenanigans certainly destabilized this season ... but I’m not sure that was more consequential than the show’s fundamental unwillingness to harness its own genre pleasures. Here was a show that built to a final courtroom battle between Nicole Kidman and Meryl F*cking Streep, one that—despite being absurd and unrealistic in almost every legal particular—somehow did not contain one piece of information we didn’t know, one surprising outcome, or one secret. Despite there being a number of juicy ones available! Like Perry having killed his brother and his mother covering it up!!!, for example. It’s like throwing a big dinner party and forgetting to feed your guests: What’s the point? The place settings? Please compare this to, say, Breaking Bad, which did not worry for one second that giving its audience some over-the-top plot twist would somehow make it trashy. In one of its season finales, Breaking Bad blew a guy’s face off in an episode called 'Face Off.' How in the hell can a season finale of Big Little Lies not deliver any … lies?"
Meryl Streep almost saved Season 2: "The hair, the glasses, the prosthetic teeth, the Northern California 'I know what’s good for you, dearie' intonations, the slightly pinched way of walking, the quietly penetrating gaze — it all combined to make Mary Louise a classic study in characterization by a master actress and scene-stealer," says Matt Zoller Seitz. "It probably sounds like a complaint to describe this misbegotten second season as The Meryl Streep Show, but that’s what it quickly turned into — and thank goodness, because without her, season two of Big Little Lies would have had even less reason to exist than it already did."
This was a disappointing, Emmy-baiting finale: "On Twitter on Sunday night, I saw a video showing (Nicole) Kidman on the courtroom set bowing to (Meryl) Streep," says Doreen St. Félix. "This ended up being the whole point of the seven episodes of Season 2, didn’t it? Flashy glorification of the Big Little Lies phenomenon. The electricity of the performances from Kidman, Streep, and Laura Dern (as Renata, the power broker reduced to forsaken wife) pumped into existence a thousand memes and a million gifs, but the currents were not strong enough to distract us from the weak plot of this encore season, which probably should not have been made, or, rather, recycled from the first."
In defense of Season 2: Despite all its flaws, "Season 2 of Big Little Lies gave me much pleasure," says Sophie Gilbert. "And not only for its superficial aesthetic qualities, such as the sharp glass angles of Renata and Gordon’s (Jeffrey Nordling) empty oceanside manse, or the pale-pink perfection of Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) suit in the finale—an outfit that felt like a statement all on its own about marrying the expectations of maternal caregiving with the charged fulfillment of a career. Mostly, it’s because I love the characters, who are messy, flawed, damaged, and still frequently sympathetic." Season 2, she adds, "had to measure up to the standard set by the first season, an award-sweeping bouquet of critical catnip. It had to justify the show’s continuation at all, given its satisfying structural self-containment. After casting Streep as Celeste’s mother-in-law, the show also had to make space for the most nominated actor in the history of the Academy Awards while giving Zoë Kravitz’s Bonnie more substantial scenes... If the first season had the luxury of being smarter than people assumed it was, the second was almost sunk from the beginning by the burden of its own prestige."
Meryl Streep was Big Little Lies' "nuclear option" who turned a one-note villain into a transfixing one: "Without a more organic source of fireworks, (David E.) Kelley and (Liane) Moriarty compensated with Mary Louise, a veritable Lush bath bomb for a show in desperate need of suds," says Alison Herman. "Streep was Big Little Lies’ nuclear option, an unignorable source of drama and suspense. The legendary performer did successfully turn a one-note villain into a transfixing one, shading in a vindictive monster-in-law with unscriptable gestures—a necklace on the chin here, a girlish giggle there—that together added up to the idiosyncrasies of a person. But Streep could compensate for only so long. Beneath those false teeth and that shifting gaze was only the wan reveal that Mary Louise had blamed a 5-year-old Perry for his brother’s death in a car accident, possibly contributing to his adult dysfunction. For all her quirks, Mary Louise’s role in the ensemble remained a functional one, launching a custody battle into a vacuum. Someone had to be the antagonist once Renata turned ally. Big Little Lies remains the leading example of Movie Star TV, and one reading of Season 2 positions it as a cautionary tale of stars run amok, chewing through scenery until there’s no set left to act against."
What was the point of Season 2?: "What BLL’s showrunners and producers wanted us to know was that the show’s drama was not building up to everything it initially seemed to be," says Winston Cook-Wilson. "Outside of some questionable plot decisions, the episode also didn’t provide a sufficient answer a crucial larger question: What was the comprehensive purpose, or intended purpose, of this muddled followup season to a good show that should have never had a sequel? How did Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée’s show go from a visionary experiment in its first season to a dramatically tedious shadow of itself in its second? Season two robbed Big Little Lies of subtlety and mystique, resembling the pseudo-intellectual subjectivity of the more unabashedly pulpy The Affair, incapable of finding resourceful new ways to tell its story."
Season 2 started off strong but went in the opposite direction of Season 1: "Where season one blossomed into a series with more layers and insightfulness than one may have initially anticipated, season two increasingly contracted its ambitions rather than expanding them," says Jen Chaney. "Its first three episodes, which, perhaps not coincidentally, were the ones given to critics writing the initial reviews, were promising."