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July 28, 2014

How to Fix 'Big Love'

by Gary Susman, posted Mar 5th 2010 4:00PM
Has 'Big Love' jumped the shark?

'Big Love' has been so over the top this season, with so many plot twists and shocking revelations crammed in, that it's seemed to take a perverse pleasure in its own excess. Some fans (like Time critic Richard Corliss) relish the Emmy-nominated show's game of "can we top this?", while others balk at the show's more head-scratching developments. What may be most frustrating about the current season is that it provokes both responses, awe and irritation, at the same time.

With the season coming to an abrupt end this Sunday, March 7 (after just nine episodes), it's worth looking back at the new problems with 'Big Love' that emerged this season -- and how the show can solve them in season 5.

The Title Sequence: It was jarring at first, after three seasons of the old opening, but the new opening seems to be growing on fans. Certainly, its mood, with the characters falling into darkness and trying to grab hold of each other, and with Engineers' haunting ballad 'Home,' seems to fit this season better than the old ice-skating montage and the Beach Boys' love song 'God Only Knows.' Still, doesn't seeing suit-clad Bill plummeting through space remind you a little too much of the 'Mad Men' opening? Next season, keep the song, but ditch the visuals for something more original.

'Big Love' Season 4 Title Sequence

Overplotting: One reason the show seems so overly busy is an abbreviated schedule that has the writers trying to cram too much incident into just nine episodes. These days, a typical day in the life of the Henricksons might involve a campaign stop, a legal hearing over Juniper Creek's finances, a bomb threat at the casino, a scandalous revelation about Bill from a political opponent, an emotional outburst by one of the sister wives, a kidnapping, a green-card marriage, a visit to a Blackfoot sweat lodge, an extortion threat, Bill and Barb's grown kids acting out, grandpa Frank making a scene, the unearthing of a corpse and a brutal game of backyard tetherball.

It's a wonder Bill hasn't dropped dead from a heart attack or stroke, or been abducted by space aliens. As much fun as it is to watch the writers take an unpredictable, shotgun approach to plotting, it's meant they've left a lot of narrative strands underexplored and loose ends hanging. What happened to the church Bill was trying to launch? What's become of poor, betrayed Don? What is scheming J.J. really up to? If Sunday's episode is a cliffhanger (as is likely) that leaves a lot of questions unresolved, the writers will have their work cut out for them next season trying to answer them while narrowing the focus to a manageable level.

The Campaign: This plot development is season 4's biggest -- and the hardest to swallow. Does Bill really think that as a state senator, he'll have the power to overturn 120 years of law and tradition to make polygamy legal and acceptable? Does he really think, after campaigning on traditional family values, he'll be able to tell voters he lied to them about how many wives he has without facing an immediate recall election? And doesn't he already have enough on his plate with the Home Plus stores, the casino, the Juniper Creek financial mess, and -- oh, yeah -- his three wives and eight kids? Let's hope Sunday's finale sees him lose the election, just so he can focus on, oh, everything else.

•Villains: Killing off Roman Grant was a bad idea; no one this season has matched him in manipulation and menace, though many have tried. Alby, having assumed his father's role as Juniper Creek's leader, could have been a cold and ruthless villain, but his weepy, tragic love affair made him more pitiable than frightening. Nicki's creepy ex J.J. clearly has big plans, but he spends far too much time lurking and too little time doing.

Rival polygamist sect leaders Hollis and Selma Green could be great villains, but machete-wielding Lois seems to have emasculated them for the time being. Dupicitous lobbyist Marilyn has been a great addition, in part because Sissy Spacek is such a superb actress, and in part because her story so closely resembles that of casino lobbyist and convicted fraudster Jack Abramoff, whose massive Washington corruption scandal has gone largely unaddressed by popular culture. Still, as a villain, she's no Roman. The show needs to find a worthy villain (and a good excuse for us to root for the Henricksons to prevail) and fast.

Character Changes: You expect characters to change and grow over time, but 'Big Love's' characters have changed beyond recognition this season. Usually loyal Bill threw poor Don under the bus to save his campaign and pushed son Benny away even while being reminded of his own sad history of teenage exile. The usually self-possessed Barb has been unusually impulsive, whether hiring Marilyn to spite Bill or making an ill-conceived remark about Utah women and prescription drugs that got Bill into political hot water. Margene has become a confident businesswoman while still being scatterbrained enough to think that her quickie paper marriage to Goran isn't going to have dire repercussions for the whole clan. Joey has gone from dimwitted jock to bloodthirsty schemer.

Big Love wivesNicki has whipsawed from prude to tart and back, from resentful spy to loving wife, and from supportive sister (to Alby) to avenging crusader and back to supportive sister. Even Teenie changed, to a whole new actress (Bella Thorne, replacing Jolean Wejbe), and the character went from timid and gawky to bratty and smug (all right, maybe that's just adolescence). It's hard to care about these people that we barely recognize and whose motivations we can't fathom. It's time for the writers to get them back to their essences. Remember, the Henricksons think of themselves as people of principle, even if they don't often adhere to it.

What do you think: Has 'Big Love' jumped the shark this season? What do you hope to see in season 5?

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