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Meryl Streep's emergence in Big Little Lies is a dark omen

Meryl Streep as Mary Louise: a carnivorous overbite. Photo/Supplied

In Big Little Lies, there are so many thin, rich women in so much trouble. And it's only getting worse.

Mothers, again. Still. So much television drama revolves around women who are suboptimal parents. Big Little Lies, back for a schadenfreude-propelled second season – so many thin, rich women in so much trouble. What’s not to like? Monterey’s Otter Bay Elementary School principal fills in the new teacher. He’s black and marooned on a desert island of white privilege, where preposterously entitled Renata outlines his obligations to her child’s IQ. “I told you the second-grade mothers are Shakespearean,” sighs principal Nippal.

Well, the ladies are stressed. Last season, Alexander Skarsgård’s Perry, in a sick sex-and-violence-fuelled marriage with Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, ended up dead at the school fundraiser. Yoga teacher Bonnie pushed him downstairs as he was attacking Celeste, who was about to show some uncharacteristic sense and leave him.

The awful Renata, mixed-up Madeline and solo mum Jane, who last season realised Perry was the rapist who fathered her son, were there. The women agreed to make it seem like an accident. Truth would have sufficed, given that it was an accident, sort of, and Perry was a very bad egg. But would television drama even exist if characters paused to think things through?

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

This season amps up the camp. Laura Dern’s Renata does an extended mad scene as she learns that her idiot husband is into fraud as well as model trains. He’s lost everything. “I will not not be rich!” she screams, hurling furious double negatives at a universe that clearly owes her. Her friends are more worried about how to live with the big little lie about Perry’s “accident”.

Enter Meryl Streep as Mary Louise, Perry’s mother. She has come to “help” Celeste. Streep sports a false overbite she had made so she looked more like Skarsgård’s mother. On him – he appears in flashback and nightmares – it’s sexy, on her, carnivorous.

Mary Louise is a symphony of passive aggression in a disapproving bob and sensible shoes. See her accelerate smoothly from purring grandmotherly sympathy – “You feel angry,” she says to Celeste’s fatherless twins – to full, wailing banshee. She feels angry, too, she muses, when she sees her friends and their sons. “Mediocre, second rate, pudgy, balding … Still alive and my Perry … I just want to scream.” Streep then emits a possibly career-defining noise that sounds so vocal-cord-shredding you hope she managed it first take. Celeste’s face conveys horror and a startled respect for a superior drama queen. The scene has gone viral.

Yet Streep allows us to glimpse Mary Louise’s grief. Her performance is comic and chilling, with an undertow of anguish. This season is like that, constantly pulling up just short of cartoonish. That it can be this silly and still affecting is down to the children – excellent performances all round. They are the real protagonists, trying to sort big lies from little; struggling to be seen by parents busy self-medicating with money, power and/or toxic relationships. “You will not be like him!” shrieks Celeste – sub-Streep screaming – as she pushes one of her boys, whose aggression reminds her of Perry, to the ground.

Teenage Abigail isn’t taking her mother Madeline’s advice on going to college. Who can blame her? “You were f---ing the theatre director last year,” Abigail points out. Madeline’s put-upon second husband, Ed, overhears. “You misheard,” says Madeline, adding another little lie. Ed picks up his jacket. Madeline: “Where are you going?” Ed: “To get my ears tested.”

But all subplots pale beside the main event. Mary Louise suspects there’s more to her son’s death. She’s got a beady eye on the mothers, especially Celeste. Cracks are beginning to show. The second episode’s title – Tell-Tale Hearts – evokes Edgar Allan Poe’s great story of the destabilising effect on the mind of a guilty secret. Strap yourself in for a bumpy ride.

BIG LITTLE LIES, Soho 2, Monday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.