HBO // 2010 // 516 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // January 19th, 2011
One would think that an advantage to writing a show about polygamists would be that the greater multitude of characters in the family would allow for the drama and intense situations to get spread around a bit, allowing for a more realistic feel where exciting things aren't happening to every character all the time. The writers of the superb Six Feet Under -- which featured three adult siblings and their mother rather than three wives and their husband -- understood this and managed to skate through to the end of five seasons without viewers feeling too skeptical that so many unusual and entertaining things could happen to these people in five years. Big Love, which begins its fifth and final season this month, has gone a different route. What began as an engaging and well-paced series about a complex family has each year descended a little further into madness, with all the characters seemingly in crisis mode all the time now. Ramping up the pace and packing more (and more outlandish) plots into seasons that keep getting shorter (nine episodes?!?), the show has become, by this fourth year, little more than a guilty pleasure nighttime soap.
Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, Twister), whose life philosophy seems to be quantity over quality, has three wives, three houses, three businesses, eight kids, and innumerable problems. He's a closet-polygamist living in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, having been cast out as a teenager by the creepier polygamists at the Juniper Creek compound. His second wife, Nicki (Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry), has deep roots at the compound as the daughter of "the prophet" Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, Wild at Heart), who was murdered at the close of Season Three but hangs around as a corpse or hallucination for some of these episodes. First wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct) used to be a reluctant polygamist but suddenly last season became obsessed with The Principle and took over as the family's number one pregnancy-pusher. This year she's also helping to manage the Henrickson's new casino business, because third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, Mona Lisa Smile) has abdicated that position in favor of her own business: selling jewelry on a home shopping network.
The family's kids and Bill's extended family in Juniper Creek are also up to their usual shenanigans this season. Just-out-of-high-school daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia!) is planning her marriage to a guy who is ten years her senior and knocked her up last season. Bill's brother Joey (Shawn Doyle, The Majestic) is reeling from the murder of the woman who was to be his second wife. And Bill's mother, Lois (Grace Zabriskie, Twin Peaks) has a new wacky scheme: smuggling exotic birds from Mexico.
Spoiler Alert! I'll be giving away all the ridiculous twists and turns of Season Four.
* "Free at Last"
When Roman turns up dead, the Henricksons feel glad to be free of his power and influence. Unfortunately, they're not free of his corpse, which turns up on the property of their new casino business just before its grand opening. Needless to say, their partners Jerry (Robert Beltran, Star Trek: Voyager) and Tommy (Adam Beach, Flags of Our Fathers) from the Indian reservation that houses the casino are less than pleased.
Tommy: "We thought you were the sunny face of polygamy."
* "The Greater Good"
Sarah thinks about skipping down to the courthouse with Scott for a civil ceremony, which horrifies Barb. Power struggles get complicated at Juniper Creek, where Roman's closeted gay son Alby (Matt Ross, The Aviator) gets into bed with Dale (Ben Koldyke, How I Met Your Mother), the state-appointed trustee of the compound's assets -- literally. Bill has his worst idea yet (sent from God, of course): he'll run for state senate.
Bill: "What does it mean when you're on a path that you think is certain, and everyone you love doesn't want to follow?"
* "Strange Bedfellows"
Bill gets a taste of real politics when he travels to Washington, D.C. seeking an endorsement from a Utah senator and pisses off a major political player, Marilyn Densham (special guest star Sissy Spacek, Carrie) by assuming that she's a secretary. Nicki brings her teenage daughter Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson, Cop Dog) on the trip, but she has trouble blending in outside of Utah. Margene makes out with the family's oldest son Ben (Douglas Smith, Blast from the Past), who has long carried a torch for her, and he ends up getting introduced as her husband on her home shopping show.
Cara Lynn: "I know it's wrong to lie."
Nicki: "It is. And it almost never works."
* "The Mighty and Strong"
Sarah, still sad about her miscarriage, kinda-sorta borrows a baby from a meth addict mom on the Indian reservation. All the secrets come out about Margene and Ben's kiss, and the reality that it meant something to both of them. On the eve of Bill's public announcement that he will be running for office, he asks longtime business partner Don (Joel McKinnon Miller, Las Vegas) to make a major sacrifice.
Bill, to Don: "Will you take the bullet?"
* "Sins of the Father"
Tensions brew, as usual, among the Henrickson spouses as Bill enters the home stretch on his campaign to win the Republican nomination for state senate. They get even more tense when crafty Marilyn Densham comes through town at the same time looking to get hired as a consultant for the casino. Nicki plays spy again, this time for Bill: she serves as a campaign volunteer for his opponent to gather info.
Nicki: "Bill, how come I'm always called upon to do the morally ambiguous things?"
* "Under One Roof"
By chance, Ana (Branka Katic, Public Enemies) comes back into the family's life -- pregnant, with Bill's baby! Ben, kicked out of the house by Bill, is now staying with his grandmother Lois and joins her bird-smuggling operation. Their smuggling run to Mexico turns out to be more dangerous than expected. Pressure mounts in Alby and Dale's affair, with tragic consequences.
Alby, to Nicki: "Leave the past to the past, sister. When it looks like ours, no good can come of it."
* "Blood Atonement"
Nicki's fertility problems make her question and resent her mother Adaleen's (Mary Kay Place, It's Complicated) pregnancy with JJ (Zeljko Ivanek, Damages), her new compound-appointed husband who also happens to be Nicki's evil ex-husband. Barb and Tommy deal with a bomb scare perpetrated by evangelical protestors at the casino. Bill and Joey travel to Mexico to save the family smugglers from murder at the hands of Hollis Green and his cronies.
Barb: "When did evangelical Christianity lose its civility?"
* "Next Ticket Out"
Sarah announces that she's moving to Portland with Scott, much to everyone's alarm and disappointment (especially mine -- despite being sometimes annoying as a character, she's hot). Some of Barb's public comments get Bill into some political trouble. Margene tries to help the family by marrying Ana's green-card-needing fiancé, Goran -- nobody thinks it's that helpful.
Teeny, a Henrickson daughter: "Margene got married...sorry, Ben."
* "End of Days"
Nicki's quest to get pregnant and her conflict with JJ both come to a head, violently, in the compound fertility clinic. Margene struggles with her new fake marriage and whether she wants to be outed as a polygamist, putting her business at great risk, if Bill wins his election. Barb had doubts, too, telling Bill that she wants a different life. And all the drama crests on election day.
Bill, in his victory speech: "I'm Bill Henrickson and I believe in the principle of plural marriage. I'm a polygamist."
It doesn't bode well for a series that's getting on in years when a season's main story arc is absolutely ludicrous from the get-go. That's how I felt about Season Four's political campaign plot. The wives all think it's absurd when Bill announces his intentions and the writers fail to convince us that it's any less absurd as the episodes roll by. Looking back over this season and the previous three, how many people know that Bill is a polygamist? And how many enemies have the Henricksons made who might want to share that damaging information with the press? Lots, in both cases. If either of his opponents -- for the Republican nomination or the senate seat itself -- were actually digging up dirt on him, as they appear to be, they'd have a pretty small bill at the private investigator's office. It would probably take any old schmo about an hour to gather evidence of polygamy at the Henrickson houses. Never mind the issue about how damaging Bill's plan to get elected and then out his family will be to their finances, since all their income depends on not getting boycotted by LDS Mormons.
Even if one buys this plot as believable, it brings the show to a dangerous brink at which its main character transitions from "meh" to loathsome. By the end of it, I agreed wholeheartedly with the fiery Marilyn Densham's statement to Bill, about Barb, "I respect her. Heaven only knows what she's doing with a horse's ass like you!" I know the season is supposed to be about seeing what will become of Bill when he has to play dirty to achieve his political ambitions, but his dark side proved far too reprehensible for me to sympathize with or root for him anymore, at all. This season we see him lie through his teeth countless times, kick his son out of the house, erupt in anger at his third wife when she takes on a (fake) second husband, help drive a closeted gay man to suicide, sell out his best friend in a life-shattering way, and betray the Indian Reservation casino partners who took a big chance going into business with a polygamist. Almost all Bill does in the season finale is drive from one place to another maliciously threatening person after person in order to secure his election. For liberals like me who watch the show (I'd guess that a lot of its viewers swing left), it was grating enough just to be reminded in every single episode that our protagonist and his family are staunch Republicans.
The one nice touch in all this comes at the season's end, with the likelihood that Bill's plan will backfire. He becomes a senator and exposes his family in order to change people's minds about polygamy, intending to show the world a model multi-wife family that will impress everyone with its functional and moral lifestyle. But as he and the wives stand on the platform as public polygamists, all the fights, lies, betrayals, shady dealings, and growing distance between them threaten something else: that theirs will not be a model polygamist family, but rather one that falls apart -- and does so, now, in public. That could be an interesting payoff in Season Five, but I suspect the series will, unfortunately, end on a happier note for "our hero" Bill.
Though the foundation of the season, both its central character and central plot, are rotting at the core, there are lots of redeeming aspects of Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season, too. Though the match between Dale and Alby was a little odd, it was great to see a serious, multi-episode storyline about how damaging religious intolerance of homosexuality and programs to "cure" it really are. One thing that hasn't changed since Big Love premiered is that the leading ladies really carry the show and all three keep up their strong performances here, even when given bad scenes or uneven character development. Barb's fish-out-of-water story at the casino works pretty well, Nicki gets to show a lot more humanity through her relationship with estranged daughter Cara Lynn, and Margene grows a backbone in the household, enabled partly by her business success outside it. The possibility that Margene might be well-suited to polyamory of a less conservative stripe crops up at the season's end with Ana and Goran in a very interesting turn that I hope won't just fizzle out in Season Five. Sissy Spacek's guest role is also a treat, as she picks up the scheming-lady slack from Nicki, who's on better behavior this year. It's great fun to hear her put Bill in his place over and over, uttering lines like "Your religion, I think, is bullshit. It's just another excuse for fucking around," or "You're like a big piñata, Bill. Every time I give you a whack, more goodies fall out."
As for the soap-opera-style antics, they'll be a plus and a minus for different viewers. Part of me regrets that it's come to this -- every new scene seems to bring a new scandalous crime, scandalous marriage, scandalous pregnancy, scandalous affair, and so on -- but another part figures that if the serious stories like Bill's political campaign are going to be so stupid, we might as well get some guilty pleasure out of Ben and Margene's make-out session or Ana's big-bellied return.
HBO offers up only a decent DVD release for Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season. As a present-day, household drama set in a Utah subdivision, it's a struggle for the series to achieve really eye-popping visuals or amazing sound work -- perhaps a reason this series, unlike others from HBO, doesn't get the Blu-ray treatment. Colors and contrast look pretty good, but there are noticeable compression artifacts throughout. The audio sounds fine, though you may feel a bit exhausted by the driving score, which tries to keep up with the relentlessly paced plot. Extras are of a different sort than the last few seasons, but just as minimal. Instead of short "prequels" featuring the main cast, we get a little "Inside the Episode" featurette for each episode in which series co-creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer talk about the major plot points and their thoughts about the characters. These hover around two minutes a piece and are interesting, though not revelatory. They talk about the long debate among the writers on whether to have Margene and Ben kiss, the "Hepburn/Tracy" chemistry they were thrilled to get between Paxton and Spacek (I'm not as sure about that as they are), and about why Bill runs for office. Strangely, they seem to take the tetherball match between Bill and Goran, which I read as a rare moment of self-awareness and silliness from the writers and director, very seriously as a metaphor for Bill's desperate struggle. As if I needed more evidence of the following conclusion, I guess that means the show's writers and I don't exactly see eye to eye this year.
My disappointment with the fourth season of Big Love is well-mirrored by my disappointment with the new opening credits. It used to be a cute and quirky ice-skating sequence among the spouses, accompanied by the Beach Boys tune "God Only Knows" -- its repeating, overlapping chorus making a nice little joke about the multi-spouse family. "God only knows" what Bill would be "without you -- and you, and you." Starting up the the premiere of Season Four, I was instead confronted by an overwrought and overlong sequence of the four main actors messing around with wire effects and a wind machine. "What the hell is this?" I asked my partner. Unfortunately, I'd be asking that same question for most of the season.
Guilty as sin -- probably all seven of them, in this season.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 516 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site