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‘Big Little Lies’ returns, delightfully nastier than ever

Updated June 7, 2019 - 8:19 pm

If this keeps up, Meryl Streep just might have a future in television.

When “Big Little Lies” debuted in 2017, its assemblage of talent — Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz — was bordering on the absurd. With the addition of Streep for Season 2 (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO), it’s become the Golden State Warriors of TV casts — minus the injury bug.

It’s the first day of school at Otter Bay Elementary, and Witherspoon’s Madeline is already cranked up to 11 from dealing with the first-world frustrations of dropping off her youngest. “We have to earn our ‘good mom’ badges all over again,” she declares to her bemused husband (Adam Scott). “‘Has she gotten fatter over the summer? Does she look older?’ These questions get asked. We all get judged all over again.”

If she’s dreading that judgment, just wait till she finds out she and the other returning moms have been dubbed “The Monterey Five.”

Really, shove a guy down a series of steps to his death and people get so holier-than-thou. Not that anyone else in that seaside bastion of privilege knows for certain that’s what happened, but suspicions are like oxygen there.

Since that fateful trivia night fundraiser that saw the abusive Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) tumble into the hereafter — dressed like ’68 comeback special Elvis, no less — things haven’t been easy for the women at the scene.

His widow, Celeste (Kidman), is still reeling. Bonnie (Kravitz), who did the shoving, is withdrawn and may be taking things worse than anyone. Madeline and Renata (Dern) are derailed by a variety of setbacks caused by some colossally bad choices. Jane (Woodley), meanwhile, is mostly just suffering from some unfortunate bangs.

Their complicated lives get even more so thanks to the addition of Celeste’s mother-in-law, Mary Louise (Streep).

A spectacularly awful woman, lurking about like a passive-aggressive Jessica Fletcher, Mary Louise is determined to find out what happened to her sweet baby Perry — her sweet, rapey, wife-beating baby Perry.

Witherspoon’s Madeline is directly in her crosshairs, and the verbal assault Mary Louise doles out is delightful.

“You’re very short,” she tells the stunned real estate agent. “I don’t mean it in a negative way. Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.”

Later, when confronted about the exchange, Mary Louise apologizes. Kind of.

That remark had nothing to do with Madeline, she explains. It was stirred up by a “quite treacherous” friend she had years ago at boarding school. “She was just an itty-bitty little thing with a big, bubbly personality that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside. You remind me so much of her. I suppose I punish you for that. That’s wrong of me, and I apologize.”

It’s all just … wow.

When she lets out a primal scream at the dinner table as a teaching moment for Celeste’s twin hellions, it’s not that hard to imagine Mary Louise baking the little monsters into a pie and devouring them.

Kidman, Dern and Skarsgard each took home Emmys for their work in the first season, and Witherspoon seems to be going all Tracy Flick in order to join the club.

Madeline is just plain driven, trying to force her daughter, who has zero interest in college, into attending anyway, Lori Loughlin-style. “Honestly,” Madeline scoffs, “if she doesn’t go to college, what’s she going to do? Go into retail?”

But her real value to the new season comes from the facial contortions and eyeball gymnastics in response to Mary Louise.

The antagonism on display is phenomenal.

In Season 2 “Big Little Lies,” has become “The Real Housewives of Prozac Nation.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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