It’s one of the quirks of prestige television that its most highbrow series are often exercises in genres that, in the realm of literature, are considered lowbrow: mysteries, thrillers, serial killers. In adapting Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, HBO gave a deliciously plotted, characteristically satisfying chick-lit mystery the starriest treatment available. The acting, directing, and cinematography (mostly the acting) elevated Big Little Lies’ reputation above that of its source material, a prototypical beach read. On the surface, Big Little Lies successfully distanced itself from whence it came: It made the most of Moriarty’s tight plot, fully conceived but myopically privileged female characters, and big central coinkydink, turning it into a show only a brute would mistake for the dreaded soap opera, TV’s own version of chick lit. With its psychological acuity, dreamy shots of the surf, movie stars, name director, and beachfront properties awaiting an Architectural Digest spread, it was not merely that. It was something more! It was something better!
But the end of the second season of Big Little Lies exposed the reflexive defensiveness of this position. Without the support of Moriarty’s novel and its carefully plotted storyline—a balanced melodrama with the appropriate number of hairpin reveals—the series further suppressed its reliance on soapy tropes. There were no affairs or surprises or even, really, secrets. For most of the season, it didn’t matter much that the show was about minor fluctuations in character: There were thrills to be had as each of the actresses tangled with Meryl Streep at her most villainous and Laura Dern added to her GIF library. But 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—more on that in a second!—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 Fucking 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?
The backstage drama, richer perhaps than the on-screen drama, does have something to do with all of this. Andrea Arnold, the director whose name is on the season, reportedly had it taken from her and re-cut by executive producer and director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley. Arnold is known for her subtle character work, exploring the intense emotions of her characters without having them explicitly tell you what they are feeling. And maybe there is some Arnold version of this season—before all the re-cuts and re-shoots—that would have given you a real sense that the Monterey Five, and not just Bonnie, were struggling with the lie of Perry. A season that would have been emotionally dense enough to make the whole thing work as a character study bobbing along in the wake of last season’s plot. Instead, it drifted.
There were a number of scenes in which the women told us they were struggling with the lie—“It’s finally getting to you,” Bonnie told Madeline a few weeks ago; it’s gotten to all of us, Madeline told Celeste in the finale—but this did not really seem to be the case. They seemed stressed not by Perry’s death, but by life problems much closer at hand: Madeline’s divorce, Celeste’s widowhood and custody battle, Jane’s trauma and new relationship, Renata’s odious husband. Only Bonnie seemed to be wallowing in the weight of their crime. The final scene, in which the women walked into the police precinct to confess, was tense in the way that the characters walking into a restaurant with a reservation for four would be tense. Could the restaurant, possibly, accommodate five? How quickly would the police let them go once they learned it was basically self-defense?
Despite the second season of Big Little Lies, I refuse to believe that it is impossible to make an insightful, deep, non-catty yet super enjoyable highbrow series that embraces, and does not run from, the plot possibilities of soap opera. And I refuse to believe this because I have seen the first season of Big Little Lies! The second season was distorted by its willingness to give the audience “what it wanted”—actresses chewing scenery—at the expense of what the show needed. The show needed something simultaneously higher-minded and trashier: deeper emotional insight brought about by a seething crucible of plot. I’m sure there would have been much eye-rolling if the season had ended with Renata accidentally killing her husband with that baseball bat, but that would have been way more fun and dramatic—more captivating and ridiculous—than what actually happened. As the first season demonstrated, plot, character, and a high-gloss finish can fit together so satisfyingly that people will go out of their way to make sure no one insults a soap opera by calling it a soap opera. All I wish for the inevitable third season of Big Little Lies is that it has the confidence not to care what it’s called.