There’s a bracing exchange early in the first episode of the new season of Big Little Lies (Mondays, Fox Showcase, 11am). Grieving mother and grandmother Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) looks out from behind her spectacles with her keen, bright eyes and says to Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), whom she’s just met, “You’re very short. I’m sorry, I don’t mean it in a negative way. Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.”

Rather than the gut punch that it actually is, the bald insult is delivered in a deceptively mild, butter-wouldn’t-melt voice, as a kind of musing observation. And it understandably renders the generally voluble Madeline speechless.

With that early “Oh wow” encounter, several things become strikingly apparent about the new season of Big Little Lies. It’s hard to imagine any casting wish-list aiming higher than Streep and, yes, she’s a terrific addition to the already impressive ensemble. The second, seven-part season of this drama series also has surprises aplenty in store. And it was a good decision to build on the success of the first season, to extend the story beyond Liane Moriarty’s novel, because this screenplay looks to have more than enough material to keep the story and its characters developing in a style that’s dramatically compelling and a lot of fun to watch. This is a production that’s clearly in capable hands, on screen and off.

Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in the returning season of Big Little Lies.Credit:Fox Showcase

In addition to the other disruptions that she provokes in the California coastal community that she’s visiting in order to lend support to her dead son’s family, Mary Louise establishes herself in a few short, sharp, beautifully written scenes as an unsettling force cloaked in grandmotherly garb: disarming, scarily perceptive, ruthless, unpredictable and resolutely unapologetic. Her startling, anguished dinner-table scream only amplifies the impression: she throws people off balance and she operates by her own rules. So this is where the recently deceased Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) came from.

Madeline is a close friend of Mary Louise’s now-widowed daughter-in-law, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Witherspoon ended up being slightly over-shadowed by her cast mate and producing partner Kidman in the acclaimed first season of Lies. Kidman deserved the kudos. She delivered a customarily brave and subtly nuanced performance as an outwardly composed woman struggling to conceal the complex truth of her violent marriage. She’s nothing if not brave, in her career choices and her performances.

But Witherspoon, with a less explosive storyline for her character – tiger mom and unfaithful wife – also nailed the many shades of the pushy, brightly determined, motor-mouthed, loyal, big-hearted Madeline Martha Mackenzie. She made it easy to appreciate Madeline’s energy and drive, and still be irritated by her steam-rolling style.

The original cast returns for series two of Big Little Lies. From left, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern. Credit:HBO/Fox Showcase

Madeline is now a member of the “Monterey Five”, the mothers bonded by their presence at a school function where, at the end of the last season, they witnessed the accident that killed Perry. Furious that she planned to leave him, he attacked Celeste and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) impulsively intervened to stop him.

Over its first season, Lies united a handful of school mums, and there’s nothing saccharine about their sisterhood. While they’re linked by a shocking event, they’re also divided by class, race, money, history and family circumstances. Bonnie is married to Madeline’s former husband. Jane (Shailene Woodley) was raped by Perry and is now a single mother to his son. It might sound soapy, but it’s not.

Distinguished by a deft intelligence that is also evident in Moriarty’s novel and developed by award-winning writer-producer David E. Kelley, Lies subverts stereotypes and pops with constant surprises. Packed with plot, the new season, which grew from a 200-page novella by Moriarty, extends the storylines for each of the women in thoughtful ways that fit fluidly with what we’ve previously known about them while also pivoting into the unexpected.

Jane is happily dancing alone on the beach, enjoying a new job at the aquarium and tentatively entertaining the possibility of romance. Bonnie is depressed, wracked by guilt and unable to talk to anyone about her pain. Renata (Laura Dern), still unabashedly ambitious and avaricious, is confronted by a crisis when her husband is arrested by the FBI, affecting her reputation and her financial security. The reliably excellent Dern has grabbed this role with gusto and turned a character who, in less skilled hands, might be rendered a monster into a fully fleshed hot mess who we see in all her arrogance and vulnerability.

Meryl Streep as Mary Louise Wright in Big Little Lies. Credit:HBO/Fox Showcase

There’s a lot going on in this upper-middle-class, predominantly white coastal enclave and it offers a sense of why so many of Moriarty’s books have been optioned for screen adaptation. She creates vibrant communities and brings an astute yet compassionate eye to observing their inhabitants and their customs and values. Often she’ll also weave a murder mystery into her stories, which helps propel the plot and is catnip for TV producers.

Here, she give us all kinds of mothers and all kinds of partners. As well, the impact on children of the words and actions of the adults around them is a recurrent theme.

Marrying Moriarty’s solid foundation with Kelley’s skill for character development, dialogue, plotting, pacing and bursts of humour has created a dynamic production. One can only hope that the Moriarty adaptations to come are handled with the dexterity that has so far distinguished Big Little Lies.

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