Season Premiere: Big Love – “Free at Last”

“Free at Last”

January 10th, 2010

Big Love is a show that’s all about high stakes, although it’s a show where its idea of high stakes tends to oscillate. As I wrote about on Sunday, my relationship with the show is very new, and somewhat mixed: I appreciate many parts of the show, but I have my concerns with how it balances its various story elements. When the stakes are high because of nuanced character interactions and slowly-building plot elements, the show is television drama at its finest; when the show defines its stakes in terms of Juniper Creek’s particular brand of insanity, or with any sense of comic zaniness, the show feels false in a way that does it no favours.

Unfortunately, the season is starting on a sour note, as “Free at Last” is a sad irony of an episode: no one is actually free, and the sheer volume of contrivances necessary to achieve that lack of freedom has weighted the show down considerably. There is some potential in these stories, but the episode glosses over so many issues in the early going that any sense of momentum or coherency coming out of Season Three has been damaged coming out of the gate, even if the show might eventually be able to turn this chaos into something substantial in the season to come.

One of the things which grounded the third season was that we very clearly understood why characters were doing what they did. We were given reasons (Nicki’s first marriage, for example) that helped ground her character’s motivations in something more concrete than stubbornness, and the show started drawing her character and others as purposeful and damages as opposed to contrived. But the problem with “Free at Last” is that the characters feel as if they’re jumping into new things for reasons that the show hasn’t made explicit, feeling as if the writers are launching a new season as opposed to the characters starting a new journey.

It doesn’t help that the show’s wives are all in particularly uninteresting places, either wrapped up in the casino (Barb), stuck dealing with Roman’s death (Nicki) and inexplicably keeping her new career a secret from her husband (Margie). I understand why Nicki has to be dealing with Juniper Creek drama considering that she kidnapped her daughter and Roman was her father and all, but Barb and Margie’s story are criminally underwritten. Barb becomes shrill and commanding with no hint of emotional depth beyond a suggestion that it is Barb recovering from her ex-communication, and I still have no idea why Margie is keeping her career a secret (or, more accurately, I’m not sure why Margie believes keeping it a secret is a good idea. I presume it’s because Bill wouldn’t want her in such a public role, but I want the show itself to address that). The actresses aren’t dropping the ball here, but the show has gone from complex personal negotiations of grief, marriage and faith in the third season to crab legs, secret home shopping careers (which I refuse to believe wouldn’t have gotten back to Bill at some point), and custody agreements in its fourth, and that’s going to take some time to get used to.

The issue is that, when those bigger stories got off the ground at a slower pace than I would have liked, it reminds us that the other parts of the show just aren’t as engaging, although you wouldn’t know that based on how the episode falls in love with them. It enjoys treating Roman’s corpse as the polygamist equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s (full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen Weekend at Bernie’s), and it loves having Frank and Lois reenact the climactic fight scene from Up (full disclosure: I’ve seen Up), and it loves having Ben join a Christian band because they get to make fun of yet another element of religious culture (admittedly one that, I too, find humorous on occasion, and one sold very well by Douglas Smith). The show seems to be revelling in its eccentricities, which is my least favourite way of confronting those stories. Alby’s pending relationship with the Trustee had an initial sense of being wacky, but it was given real world consequences by the coincidence, and I like the idea of further probing this story elements that’s only occasionally come to the surface. The other stories, meanwhile, felt comic in all the wrong ways, and the zombie hat that closed the episode was downright laughable.

I’m not suggesting I don’t find some enjoyment in this (Alby talking to his dead father was just as creepy as it should have been, for example), or that the show won’t eventually do more with these stories, but after a season that built a lot of momentum I’m disappointed for the show to feel as if it is heading off into all sorts of different directions on a whim as opposed to with any sense of purpose. I don’t care enough about Bill’s business for the drama with the casino to feel like a real engine for the series going forward, and the episode felt like a big mess as a result. By all accounts, next week’s episode starts to piece that mess together, but in the meantime I’m sort of at a loss.

Cultural Observations

  • As for the new opening, Amanda Ann Klein has a great addition to the growing number of posts on credits sequences recently with her frustrations with the show’s new opening. I share her thematic concerns, and will add that while the opening is visually arresting in individual moments it lacks any collective strength due to feeling repetitive. It’s aesthetically interesting, but that’s not worth losing most of its thematic value.
  • We saw only Sarah at the first meeting of their Church this week, so I’m hoping to see more of Amanda Seyfried in the weeks ahead.
  • The episode glosses over a lot, but how was there not more outrage at a lack of Kenny Rogers at the Casino opening? Outside of saving money on only using the Gambler’s image as opposed to actually having the man appear, it seemed like something that the crowd would have responded negatively to.
  • I nearly punched Bill Henrickson through my television when he presumed Margene’s attempts to claim that the night went well were met with “Don’t sugarcoat it, Margene.” Why would she lie? What a jerk.
  • Zjelko Ivanek sticking around all season is good news, but I hope he gets something beyond menacing to play: Matt Ross is doing fine work with a story that Ivanek played to some degree on Damages, so I want to see Ivanek get something more to work with.

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