A still from 'Big Little Lies'. (HBO/-)
Astronomic wealth, beachfront real estate porn and oversized glasses of wine that belie abuse, affairs and a swank community's murder mystery -- at first glance the hit show Big Little Lies appeared little more than a glorified soap opera.
But the HBO limited series with a stacked cast made such a splash that it's back for an unexpected second season, set to premiere Sunday, after delighting viewers with its high-octane drama, sweeping pans of the California seaside and rich portraits of complex women.
The darkly comedic show's success also highlights Hollywood's growing recognition of so-called "mature actresses", who until recently were often relegated to stock grandmother roles -- if not written off.
The female powerhouses of Big Little Lies include megawatt mainstays Reese Witherspoon ( 43 ), Nicole Kidman ( 51 ) and Laura Dern ( 52 ), along with kindling talents Shailene Woodley ( 27 ) and Zoe Kravitz ( 30 ).
And for the second season, the legendary Meryl Streep, 69, came onboard to play the steely, quietly sinister mother-in-law of the ethereal but tortured Celeste, played by Kidman, whose late -- and abusive -- husband Perry was pushed to a grisly death as he physically attacked his wife and her friends in last season's final episode.
That horrifying-if-cathartic exclamation point was supposed to mark the end, but after the first seven-episode limited series directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee soared to acclaim, HBO renewed it for a second season by the same writer, David E. Kelley, but helmed by British director Andrea Arnold.
"The response around the world was so extreme," Woodley told journalists at a press preview ahead of the June 9 premiere, saying the show's creators at first dismissed the idea of a renewal.
"It was the power of the people that made Big Little Lies come back."
Lies that bind
Far from settling into tropes of ladder-climbing women and bitter housewives, the show based on the novel by best-selling Australian author Liane Moriarty delves into topics including the enduring effects of domestic abuse and rape, the virulence of falsehoods, the growing pains of marriage and child-rearing, and the intimacy of female friendship.
"We were all so hungry to play real characters," Kravitz, the daughter of rock star Lenny and actress Lisa Bonet, told InStyle magazine.
"It's not about what we look like, it's about what we feel like."
Season two's storylines see the quintet of women grappling with lingering trauma and striving to keep among themselves their lies that bind.
It features the original run's signature flashbacks, hilarious one-liners -- especially from Witherspoon's razor-tongued Madeline -- and shots of characters broodily gazing over crashing waves while swilling Chardonnay.
The show also continues to deftly explore domestic, professional and social pressures women face -- as well as the frustrations, and often buried pain, that undergird facades of perfection.
"The intention is to create content... that explores the female psyche in a way we've never seen," said Woodley, who plays a rape survivor and single mother.
"We focus on the things that are wrong in order to then create some type of healing."
Women hiring women
The resounding success of the show also points to the growing prominence of women performing high-profile, complex roles long past youth, which Hollywood traditionally has considered their prime.
Along with Big Little Lies, productions centered on women past their forties include Dead to Me and the Oscar-nominated royal romp The Favourite.
In 2016 an analysis from economists Robert Fleck and Andrew Hanssen found that after age 40, men get more than 80 percent of leading roles. Women claim more leading roles until approximately their late 20s -- shorter careers that start earlier.
Caroline Heldman -- feminist scholar and executive director of The Representation Project, a gender watchdog organization -- said the streaming boom has seen more women hired in decision-making positions.
And since the #TimesUp movement gained steam, studios are hiring more women "to demonstrate that they are taking sexism in the industry more seriously," she told AFP.
"We are seeing some progress because women who have a modicum of power in the industry are fed up and are creating more opportunities for women," Heldman said, although she warned of a lack of mechanisms to create systemic change.
A-listers Witherspoon and Kidman are both executive producers of Big Little Lies, with the former becoming something of the face of feminist filmmaking after founding her Hello Sunshine production company.
Asked how the show has impacted her, Witherspoon told InStyle that "it's definitely made me even more determined to work with female writers and directors and women who haven't been given the opportunities they deserve."
"It's reinforced the idea that whatever concept lights this burning desire inside me is worth pursuing."