I didn’t know for sure I wanted more Big Little Lies until I saw it.
And that’s how it should be.
The HBO hit returns Sunday with a second season that reaches beyond the Liane Moriarty bestseller on which the show was based, and the good news, based on the three episodes I’ve seen, is that it’s still good.
It’s unlikely that the Television Academy will be demanding the return of that Emmy for “outstanding limited series,” but in 2017, the opportunity to see Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz together — and in something rather fun that their presence helped elevate above a guilty pleasure — really did feel limited.
And yet here we are. The stars having once again aligned (and added Meryl Streep to their number), they’ve come together to continue a story that turns out not to have been as finished as we may have thought.
Few stories ever are. The truth is, all TV series are limited. Some we just stop watching sooner than others.
When a show is adapted from a book or, like Game of Thrones, a series of books, the point at which the adapter outruns the source material is tricky. Respect the original too little, and there’s bound to be howling. Follow it too closely, and it never becomes a separate creation. And that’s one way to eventually end up with characters whose behavior is dictated more by someone’s need for another season — or an ending that checks a series of boxes — than by any thoughts of desires of their own.
What I’ve seen of the new season of Big Little Lies sidesteps that problem by returning to the source. Adapted by series creator David E. Kelley from Moriarty’s so far unpublished sequel novella, it dives deeper into its characters by asking the what-if questions that keep any good story going.
What if, for instance, Kidman’s character, Celeste, had a formidable mother-in-law (Streep) who didn’t realize that her dead son (Alexander Skarsgard) had been a monster? What if Kravitz’s Bonnie — surely the most underwritten of the first season’s main characters — had a backstory that went beyond her marriage? What if Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) had to face some consequences for her past behavior?
Streep’s Mary Louise is wonderfully terrifying (and you won’t want to miss her square off against Witherspoon), but she’s far from the only reason to watch.
Another Emmy-winning adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been in post-Margaret Atwood territory for a while now, though as its third season premieres on Hulu on Wednesday, it continues to live in the dystopian world she created in her 1985 novel. (Atwood’s announced sequel, The Testaments, which is to be published in September, takes place 15 years after the final scene involving Elisabeth Moss’ character, Offred.)
I know not everyone was thrilled with the show’s often-grim second season, or especially with the ending that had Offred, whose real name is June, sending her baby daughter to Canada while turning back from the chance to escape with her.
But in choosing to remain in Gilead, where religious extremists have stripped women of all civil rights and turned some, including June, into breeding stock, she wasn’t just providing an opening for a third season. She was refusing to leave her older daughter, Hannah, behind in a world where she’d never be allowed to read or write, much less control her own destiny.
I’m OK with June’s decision, as I was with most of last season. However difficult it was to watch at times, it was telling an important story about how most people actually behave in the face of oppression, and how very hard resistance really is.
If June staying in Gilead was a choice that served the writers, it also made them responsible for making that choice count, something they’ve mostly done in the six episodes I’ve seen so far.
The gloom lifts, just a little, in the first few, with Bradley Whitford returning as the enigmatic Commander Joseph Lawrence, Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy showing a little gumption, and June rediscovering the edge that every once in a while lights up the darkness with a laugh.
But as the story expands, the issues become as geopolitical as they are personal. We’re reminded that as good as Gilead’s neighbor to the north looks next to it, Canada can’t be expected to save everyone.
The what-ifs here still seem worth posing. Just don’t expect quick or painless answers.
A Handmaid’s Tale. Wednesday, June 5, Hulu.