The love affairs, family discords, jealousies and betrayals of “My Brilliant Friend” have a melodramatic, even tear-jerking quality that is held in check by the studied formality of the pacing and the direction of the actors — everything seems to happen a half-beat slower than real life, and the characters’ long pauses and slow reactions can take on the weight of classical drama. (Saverio Costanzo, who directed all of Season 1, shares duties in Season 2 with Alice Rohrwacher.)
And the show feels completely distinctive because of the way it proceeds less in terms of action and plot than in terms of mood and emotion. It doesn’t move forward so much as oscillate, tracing the ever-shifting, sometimes bewildering course of Elena’s feelings about Lila, the person who both inspires her deepest feelings and drives her to her pettiest and most wounding treacheries.
Actions that would, in other shows, function as sad or squalid commentary on the characters — as emotional and moral shorthand — are revealed as necessary steps in coming-of-age and coming to terms, however successfully, with the options the environment offers. And the fierce attachment to the female point of view has the effect of turning the male characters’ rage and violence into a tragicomic opera buffa, a stylized performance of endangered pride. (Giovanni Amura, as Lila’s beleaguered husband, Stefano, is particularly good at finding this theatrical quality.)
And Ferrante’s story — she’s one of the four credited writers of the series — provides layers of complexity still uncommon for series television. The doublings and redoublings in Elena’s and Lila’s actions toward each other parallel the destructive and seemingly unending patterns among fathers and sons, a crucial factor in Season 2 when it comes to Elena’s childhood crush, Nino (Francesco Serpico), and his father (Emanuele Valenti).
The formalized intensity of “My Brilliant Friend” isn’t an easy thing to sustain, and Season 2 doesn’t hold your interest quite as easily as Season 1 did. (The entire series will take place in the shadow of the first season’s first two episodes, in which the 11-year-old Ludovica Nasti gives a mesmerizing, feral performance as the young Lila.) Anyone who’s already in, though, is unlikely to escape its grip before the four novels, and the friendship, have run their course.