Big Like: Appreciation vs. Adoration for Three Seasons of HBO’s Big Love
January 10th, 2010
About a month ago, I pulled my copy of Big Love Season 1 off of my “DVDs I bought but never watched” shelf and popped the first disc into my DVD player. It was a show that I missed because of its strange schedule, the first two seasons airing before I got “really” into serious dramatic television and the third season only airing after a considerably long gap. So while some critics were calling Big Love’s third season (which aired early in 2009) its best, and while the show turned up on multiple “Best of” lists at the end of the year, I was definitely out of the loop with an impulse purchased Season 1 DVD set waiting for the day when I would eventually decided to catch up.
Now that this moment has finally come, I’m discovering just why Big Love is such a divisive show amongst critics. Maureen Ryan posted a great piece this week on the idea that there are shows which you know are good, but that you also know are not the right show for you. She lists Big Love (and Breaking Bad, which is also sitting on the aforementioned shelf) as examples of this phenomenon, and I can entirely see where she’s coming from. Meanwhile, critics like James Poniewozik and Jace Lacob are very much in love with the series, while Alan Sepinwall sits in that critical position of wanting the show to focus more on the parts he finds interesting (which, considering how the show toyed with this idea at points of the third season, is not an unreasonable desire).
Considering the nature of the television critics’ community, when I catch up with a show I can’t help but place my own thoughts in context of their own. And when it comes to HBO’s Big Love, I sit somewhere between appreciation and adoration, mediating my enjoyment of the show’s complex personal relationships and value systems with my frustration with some of the show’s pacing. The third season has gone a long way to convincing me, however, that despite my reservations at times, this is a show that is “for me.”
It might, however, be a show for me to like instead of love when it returns for its fourth season tonight at 9pm ET on HBO and HBO Canada.
[Spoilers for the first three seasons of Big Love after the jump]
While I purchased and watched the first two seasons of Big Love on DVD, I took advantage of HBO Canada’s marathon of the show’s third season in order to finish catching up, which meant that I was commandeering the parents’ DVR. Since this meant also commandeering the family room, my mother decided that she should watch as well, so I spent a fair bit of time early on explaining everything that was happening. And while some may find this annoying, it really crystallized both what makes Big Love a show I really enjoy watching and a show that can often frustrate me.
On the one hand, it reminded me how complex the show’s universe is for someone with absolutely no knowledge of Mormon theology or the polygamist Principle. Last week, when I discussed credits sequences, I mentioned that Big Love’s bothers me because it’s a bit “on the nose”: the ice breaks and separates the three wives, the dinner table, etc. However, Todd VanDerWerff informed me that the sequence is actually a retelling of the Mormon apocalypse (set to the Beach Boys, of course), and that it depicts the family’s ascent into the celestial kingdom. And part of the show’s impact in its first season was the idea that these people have beliefs that we don’t understand, and more importantly that we’re not being shown the moments where those beliefs came into being. We’re not shown Bill Henrickson receiving his testament and taking a second wife, we’re shown Bill Henrickson getting settled into suburbia with his three wives, dropping us into a world that we’re not expected to understand.
It’s one of my favourite things about the show, in that it has worked in order to establish the Principle as something tangible if not something legitimate, something that we understand even if we don’t (on a personal level) understand why Barb agreed to become a part of it in the beginning. While some shows would send me in search of additional information on the religious elements of the series, I’ve consciously chosen to let the show handle it: it’s clear that they created the series to investigate these kinds of issues, and what they’re showing us has created intense character dynamics that give the Henricksons both highly dramatic and extremely subtle qualities. Their lives are simultaneously extremely secret (to the outside world) and bizarrely open (to the rest of their family), meaning that we as an audience are able to see the internal negotiations of public and private in every character much more clearly than in shows where these themes aren’t as prevalent. I don’t necessarily understand every value of the Principle, but I understand the role it plays in the lives of every member of this family, which shows how well the show established its impact: my mother has still not quite come to grips with why anyone would ever do this, having missed the first two seasons, which demonstrates how persuasive the first two seasons were for me to accept it without much question at this point in the series’ run.
The show’s finest moment, Season Three’s “Come, Ye Saints” is all about how this family manages to balance their Principle with the secrets they keep. As the family treks across the country visiting important landmarks of their historical past, their faith is called into question by secrets we know (that Ben still has the hots for Margene, that Sarah is pregnant, that Nikki is on birth control, that Bill needs viagra to sleep with Nikki) and which begin to unveil themselves as they attempt to unite the family in the wake of the Ana disaster. And yet while their religion is supposed to comfort them, something feels wrong about even their historical journey: there’s a powerful message in the fact that most sites are simple monuments that force Barb or Margene to fill in the details through cue cards, and that even when a site has more infrastructure their interpretation of the event differs from the official museum retelling (and there are others in attendance who have their own historical readings altogether). It is the trip where Sarah loses her baby, but more importantly it was the trip where Bill (and perhaps the entire family) began to lose the plot as it concerned the Principle: the pilgrimage was supposed to bring them together, but Bill ends up watching the flying angel from outside of the stadium, praying for some sort of guidance in a life and a family that was falling apart.
But the show’s biggest problem is that, while complex human interactions were what kept me from properly contextualizing or explaining the nature of the Henrickson family dynamic, what kept me from explaining the show’s other “half,” the polygamist community at Juniper Creek, was the sheer chaos of it all. There is nothing subtle about Juniper Creek, and the qualities which seem nuanced and unsaid in the Henrickson household are broad and on constant display amongst the members of the UEB (United Effort Brotherhood) and the community they govern. While I find Juniper Creek to be quite compelling when positioned as a sign of Bill and Nicki’s past which needs to be confronted, a part of themselves they are unable to cut off without significant psychological and emotional consequences, the show has never been content to have the community remain a subtle or occasional influence on their lives. Juniper Creek has become a source of humour more than humility, melodrama more than emotion, and for Alan Sepinwall in particular the scenes have become the show’s downfall which keeps him from engaging with the show’s drama. He argues that it is no coincidence that the show’s best episode (the aforementioned “Come, Ye Saints”) is not coincidentally without a single glimpse into Juniper Creek, a point that I think is more than fair considering how the show has used the characters thus far.
I may not be quite as critical as Alan of Juniper Creek, but I can’t argue that the community has been used both inconsistently and problematically at times over the show’s run. I think the problem is that, in the beginning, the writers tried to use Juniper Creek as both a source of character development (explaining Bill’s back story, as well as Nicki’s upbringing) and as a source of manufactured plot content. Most shows tend to build tension throughout the season leading to a finale, but Big Love’s first two seasons felt constantly on the verge of explosion thanks to the sheer uncertainty surrounding Roman, Alby, Lois, Frank, Wanda, and the rest of the crazies. While the character side of things has always been a compelling idea, the show started acting as if it needed for Juniper Creek to represent a constant threat, so the crazy dial was turned up to eleven and never turned down. If the Henricksons are living in a constant state of secrecy and underlying tension, Juniper Creek is a cesspool of corruption and abuse, and taking its characters seriously was a huge challenge in the first two seasons. They could be funny, and they could certainly offer some compelling melodrama when things eventually exploded, but having to spend so much time being shown how “crazy” it all was just felt redundant and, for some, distracting to the point of disinterest.
I feel as if the third season made significant strides in this area because the season was so focused on Chloe Sevigny’s Nicki Grant. Her relationship with these characters is personal rather than confrontational, similarly built on mistrust and disagreement but come from a very personal and emotional place. Bill is not the show’s best character by a long shot, which is why placing him within Juniper Creek felt like a man being overwhelmed by crazy rather than overrun with emotion. Sevigny had a great year, and Nicky’s position trapped between her love for both her family’s and her repression of earlier traumas (her first marriage, her daughter) has made her far less trusting of the Principle and her father’s actions than she would ever admit, and it means that we’re seeing Juniper Creek as a complex position in her past, present and future rather than a ticking time bomb the writers are waiting to use when they feel like it. And when we did spend time on the compound, it was through Kathy Marquart rather than through Alby himself, and our focus was much more on the women of the compound (Frank’s wives who turned against him in the wake of young Frankie being sent away, Adaleen trying to protect her husband, Wanda dealing with Joey’s marriage, etc.) than the men and their insanity. Things felt more dramatic without feeling more melodramatic, and Juniper Creek was better integrated as a result.
But there are still times where you imagine a show without Juniper Creek remaining a constant presence, and there were points in the third season (Frankie and Rhonda, parts of the Letter Conspiracy with the Greenes) where things once against shifted to “Juniper Creek is sheer mayhem, how will Bill ever handle it all!” However, even then, their influence spread far enough into the series (Ted and Cindy’s daughter becoming involved) for it to feel as if it was escalating naturally as opposed to artificially, that it went from personal to public over time as opposed to in one fell swoop. It was simply better integrated, and the third season was the show’s strongest not just because of a single strong episode that didn’t involve Juniper Creek; as a whole, it was a smarter and more complex series which managed to find the personal in the madness and the madness in the personal without feeling as if it was pushing it all too far.
In the end, though, the disconnect between the show’s plots and the show’s characters is what keeps me from absolutely falling in love with the show to the degree of something like Mad Men or Lost. I don’t particularly care about whether they get a casino, nor do I particularly care about the ultimate fate of Juniper Creek: I care most about how those things effect the Henricksons on a personal level, which is why those parts of the show are what I find most compelling. At the same time, however, I understand why they exist: they exist to remind us that Bill’s private life is hard to reconcile with both his public persona and his “seedy” past, and he’s trapped negotiating three worlds as much as he is trapped negotiating three wives (plus there’s something to be said for the fact that he’s flat-out terrible at the latter compared to the former). But Bill has never been the most interesting part of this show for me, which is why the show has gotten progressively better as it moves further away from him and closer to the three wives and their position within these particular elements of the show’s universe.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the developments which stem from the show’s third season finale. On the one hand, the episode felt distracting more than satisfying, crashing to a halt dramatically whenever the show focused on the plot with Roman and the Greenes (both of whom I’m somewhat over, especially considering how uneventful I found Joey’s suffocation of the former). On the other hand, there was some interesting material here with the confirmation that Nicki has been repressing her daughter’s existence for years, although it felt like too much of a footnote amidst wacky letter bombings despite the kidnapping at episode’s end (although, as wacky as that kidnapping was, the emotional beat hit due to Barb’s involvement, and I can’t hate anything which will involve more Zjelko Ivanek). Sarah’s pending nuptials with Scott will be interesting depending on how much time the show will have Aaron Paul for, and Margene’s move into the Home Shopping arena has some potential, but I wonder if the stories will get enough time to really focus on them with the promise of actually taking the Henrickson family unit and turning it into its own religion (based on Roman’s idea of taking God’s authority as opposed to waiting for it). I’m not sure if that’s where I want the show to head, institutionalizing what has to this point been the show’s best qualities, but I can at the very least suggest I am intrigued.
“Intrigued” describes my basic position with the show, which is something that I don’t think will ever necessarily change. What made the show work in the third season wasn’t a particular storyline but rather a number of key factors that took the bones of the show and turned them into something more comprehensive, more substantial. The question remains regarding whether the show is capable of achieving the same, or whether this past season was just a perfect storm of the right perspectives, the right storylines, the right performances. I appreciate the show’s ability to introduce this world, and I’m a huge fan of the performances from Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Chloe Sevigny at the heart of the show, but the tension that makes the show so uncertain can oftentimes feel overwhelming to the point of creating a distance between myself and the rest of this universe, so I fully understand why some have abandoned the show, or why some never got into it in the first place (myself included). In the end, great performances and a curiousity about this world will keep me coming back, but I have my doubts about whether the show will truly “shake” its demons to the point where I can fully embrace the series as its title seems to desire me to.
- I think this is an example of the show probably working somewhat more successfully on DVD in terms of diminishing its weaker qualities. If you’re having to wait entire weeks between episodes to see if the show is ever going to abandon Juniper Creek, you will get more and more frustrated, where on DVD things resolve themselves comparatively quicker. It’s the same thing that happened with the second season of Friday Night Lights – on DVD, its problems resolve “faster” in real time, which has led to a number of people not quite understanding what the fuss is about when we complain about it so much.
- I don’t say much about Barb or Margie above, largely because I think they’re the two characters who unquestionably work for me (perhaps because they have the least to do with the compound). While Nicki being a “believer” in the Principle means that she’s trapped in those terms, watching Barb and Margie confront their independence has been the highlight for me, and has given me a great deal of respect for Tripplehorn’s work (especially during her ex-communication this season) and a huge crush on Ginnifer Goodwin (although I, like many, was enormously pleased to see her go back to being a brunette. Phew. Oh, also, her acting’s great too – just, I guess, secondary).
- It’s interesting to see the show handle what to do with the kids, in particular Ben and Sarah. Sarah had a pretty heavy storyline this season, but it felt a bit isolated at times (until it emerged in “Come, Ye Saints”), but Ben got nothing to do and his feelings for Margie (dormant for a while) came to the surface with absolutely no notice. There are points where those two, capable of having real storylines and recipients of them in Season One in particular, are marginalized when the show gets into the more melodramatic material, and while there have been attempts to integrate them further into Juniper Creek (Rhonda, Frankie, etc.) I’m just not sensing inclusion. That said, the more Tina Majorino the better, and Sarah is clearly getting some material in the upcoming season considering her pending engagement (although, as noted, Aaron Paul may have had too much trouble splitting time with Breaking Bad for Sarah to become a huge focus).
- For thoughts on what Season Four is going to look like, Sepinwall, Fienberg and Lacob (who also has a huge Q&A I’m avoiding for spoiler purposes) all have reviews up. I’ll likely be back with my own thoughts tomorrow (Chuck gets this evening).