Big Love for Big Love

The fourth season of Big Love began on Sunday, January 10, and, as I sat down to watch the season premiere, I realized, unexpectedly, that I was very excited. Perhaps it is because of the brutally cold weather outside, or because nothing “real” has aired since mid-December, but I was really, really excited. The surprise I felt was due to my ambivalence toward the first two seasons of the show; however, after a strike-lengthened hiatus, last year’s third season was easily the best.

From the first episode, Big Love’s cast immediately stands out as a major reason to give it a chance. Bill Paxton gives a career-best performance as Bill Henrickson, and his wives – played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin – are even more compelling actors. I found the plotting of the first two seasons often ponderous, and I really doubted the ability of showrunners Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer to tell a coherent story. The third season, though, found the show cohering in a way that it never had before and upping the stakes considerably, tackling topics such as abortion, ex-communication, divorce, and murder in ways that had noticeable consequences on the characters. By finally allowing things to happen – rather than showing how all the characters remained the same despite the turmoil surrounding them – the show took important steps forward and, significantly, allowed its characters to start to grow and change in realistic ways.

While some critics praise the show “despite” its focus on a polygamous family, I actually have always considered that the show’s most inherently interesting quality. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the show is its reluctance to pass judgment on the Henricksons’ lifestyle. It often presents their familial bond as something stronger than the negative forces surrounding them, allowing them to overcome many of the problems that plague their family members who still live “on the compound.” At the same time, however, it does not shy away from the significant cracks in the family structure and the astounding hypocrisies of their religion and (more obviously) their relationships. When Bill attempted to take a fourth wife throughout the third season, it was genuinely unclear how the show wanted us to feel about the endeavor.

What at first put me off about the series, but which now makes me so curious about what the new season holds in store, is the odd and constantly shifting tone. Equal parts Brady Bunch (in its demonstration of the difficulty of operating a large family) and Sopranos (in its exploration of a segment of society that we are curious about but have no access to), it is routinely offbeat, vacillating from the mundane aspects of the Henrickson household and daily routine to the odd and off-putting scenes of life on the polygamist compound. As I said before, this strange mix makes it an appealing series when so much television today is so formulaic.

If you have been holding off on Big Love either because of the subject matter, the initially lukewarm reviews for the first two seasons, or simply because you do not have HBO, then now is the time to catch up. Get the DVDs on Netflix – the good news is that there are only 34 episodes in existence. Then, call your cable company – you can probably talk them into giving you three free months of HBO and Showtime. Tell them I suggested it… actually, tell them you got a flyer in the mail.

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