TV review: HBO drama rises above some 'Big' problems

Big Love

8 p.m. Sunday


Posted 10:32am on Friday, Jan. 14, 2011

The fourth season of Big Love, which ended in March, took a lot of heat from critics and even star Chloë Sevigny, who called the season "awful" in an interview with The Onion's A.V. Club (she later recanted). Most of the complaints had to do with how overstuffed the show had become with subplots and melodrama, which seemed like an odd criticism to level at a show that has always been subplot- and melodrama-heavy.

That is what happens when you try to make a family drama (as in being about a family, not necessarily for families) in which the family includes a man, his three wives (with the brief addition of a fourth), their various parents, siblings and children and other far-flung relatives, many of them living on a compound as part of a fundamentalist polygamist sect.

The show's first three seasons balanced all of this fairly well, using the large family of suburban polygamist Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) to examine many aspects of modern American culture: marriage, religion, consumerism, politics. The fourth season got overambitious and went off the rails a few times, most notably in a subplot about Bill's parents smuggling exotic birds from Mexico and in a central story in which Bill runs for the Utah Senate, a campaign that threatens the secrecy of his triple marriage.

As the fifth season begins, the writers appear to have taken all the criticism to heart, focusing much more on Bill; his wives Barbara, Nicki and Margene (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin); and their brood.

Sunday's season premiere goes on for close to 10 minutes before we see any other characters, which is a long time for a series known for jumping around its large cast.

Slow start

Last season ended with Bill's election, and with his revealing his three wives to the public. The fallout from that continues this season, with voters -- as well as workers at the home-improvement store that Bill runs -- upset that he kept his marriages secret for so long. But Bill sees his elected office as a way of legitimizing a "principle" that he believes in and separating it from the more fringe elements at the compound, which include his vindictive brother-in-law Alby (Matt Ross), who is reaching new and dangerous levels of authoritarianism as the compound's leader.

HBO sent three episodes for review, and they are an uneven bunch. The first one deals with the fallout of Bill's announcement and the effect it has on his wives, who have always had their moments of stress and rivalry but who all come close to disintegration in the early episodes (Nicki, played with vigorous petulance by Sevigny, is the strongest, but also the most bitter). The episode has some affecting moments, but it also offers several too-easy resolutions to some of the Henricksons' problems.

The second episode, despite the additions of Robert Patrick, as a new foe for Bill, and Grant Show as a motivational speaker, seems to be biding its time; many Big Love episodes run too long, taking up nearly all their 60-minute commercial-free time slots when the writers could do the job in 50 minutes or less, but this one really moves slowly and becomes increasingly dull as it gets bogged down in exposition.

Christmas surprise

Then we get to the third, a Christmas-set episode that ranks with the most depressing holiday episodes ever, as the walls really start to fall in on Bill and his family, with new drama for Bill's mother (Grace Zabriskie) and Nicki's (Mary Kay Place), and a key turning point for Nicki's daughter Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson, having a particularly strong season).

Although the episode's a downer, it's also the one in which Big Love starts showing signs of returning to its former strengths, the one in which the melodrama starts to gel and grab your attention.

This is the final season for the show, and it's hard not to get the sense that it should have quit while it was ahead, that all these characters' antics have become tiresome and that the writers are having trouble finding new places to go. But then something like the Christmas-set episode comes along and makes you realize that they can still find new levels in their writing.

Still, this is a show about polygamists that is often best when it is not directly about polygamy, when it is about using a family that lives the way few of us live to delve into questions about the ways a lot of us live -- residing in suburbia, carpooling, running errands at retail stores, struggling with debt, dealing with family dysfunction.

Sometimes it tries too hard, and it makes a mess doing it. But better a show that tries too hard than one that doesn't try at all.

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872

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