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April 21, 2014

'Big Love': The Endgame

by Gary Susman, posted Nov 7th 2010 4:00PM
Big Love
Now that we know that the upcoming season of 'Big Love' will be its last, there are still plenty of questions about how -- and even why -- the show will end after the fifth season, which premieres Jan. 16.

For one thing, did HBO kill the once-groundbreaking polygamist drama, or did the series commit suicide? Did fan disappointment over season 4 affect the decision to bring the show to a close, or influence the way the show will tie up its many narrative loose ends? How will the show resolve all those dangling plot strands? And what legacy will 'Big Love' have left for the rest of television?

Here are some possible answers.

After the disappointing fourth season, one might expect that fan alienation was behind 'Big Love' calling it quits. But there's no indication that the decision to pull the plug came from HBO. After all, the show did reasonably well for a premium cable program (averaging 5.6 million viewers last season), and since HBO isn't advertiser-supported, ratings don't matter so much anyway.

In simultaneous statements released Thursday, HBO said it looked forward to working with 'Big Love' creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer on their next project, while Olsen and Scheffer thanked HBO for its years of support and suggested that the decision to end 'Big Love' had been their own.

"We had a strong conception of the journey the Henrickson family would make over the course of the series, of the story we had to tell," the show runners said. "While we were in the writers' room this year shaping our fifth season, we discovered that we were approaching the culmination of that story."

BIll Paxton in 'Big Love'There must have been some difficult reckoning going on in that writers' room. Fans had disapproved of the fourth season, full of radical shifts in the characters' personalities, bizarre soapy plot twists (Homicidal, machete-wielding grandmas! Women drugged and implanted with embryos!), and the hard-to-swallow spectacle of Bill Henrickson trying hard to keep his family secrets bottled up during his state senate campaign so that, once elected, he could out his own family as polygamists. By trying to squeeze too much incident into an abbreviated season of just nine episodes, 'Big Love' seemed to lose its focus.

Once the season was over last March, Chloë Sevigny was quick to condemn it as "awful" and "very telenovela." She added, "I feel like it kind of got away from itself. The whole political campaign seemed to me very far-fetched." She also suggested her costars Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin felt as she did. "Me and the girls definitely were not very happy with where it was going."

Even Scheffer acknowledged that 'Big Love's' scope had expanded too broadly. "We think the show has been the richer for having such a large ensemble," said Scheffer, "but we also feel we're at a breaking point. We've got to pare it down and refocus."

Paring down the focus was one of several tips TV Squad offered last spring on how to fix 'Big Love.' Others included finding worthier villains than the cartoon baddies who'd sprung up to fill the vacuum left by polygamist patriarch Roman Grant, keeping the characters true to themselves, and losing the Senate plot.

That last suggestion isn't going to happen, alas. Still, the show may have found a worthy villain or two for season 5. Gregory Itzin, so unforgettably weaselly as President Logan on '24,' will be on board as the Utah state senate majority leader. And 'Terminator 2' heavy Robert Patrick will be playing the leader of a polygamist fringe group.

As for how loose ends will be wrapped up, expect some poetic justice. "I think that finally you see the Henricksons having to deal with some consequences, for their actions and for their lifestyle," Sevigny recently told E! Online. "And they are finally getting a little bit of comeuppance."

Besides, who knows, maybe the self-outing plot line isn't so far-fetched. After all, polygamists have had a lot more exposure in recent years, thanks in no small part to the impact of 'Big Love' itself. The show has been popular enough to be referenced in jokes on '30 Rock,' 'Gossip Girl,' and 'House' (where the politically incorrect Dr. House gave a recurring character who was Mormon the nickname "Big Love").

And of course, there's TLC's 'Sister Wives,' where a real-life polygamist family tests how much public exposure it can subject itself to before it runs up against legal and social disapproval. TLC told The Hollywood Reporter it was renewing the series for a second season on Friday, the day after HBO announced the end of 'Big Love.'

If TLC's Brown family can withstand so much public scrutiny, maybe HBO's Henrickson family can too. Or maybe the success of 'Sister Wives' is a sign that reality has outstripped even the strangest plot twists Olsen and Scheffer could imagine, so it was time to pack it in. Either way, 'Big Love' or no 'Big Love,' TV isn't going to be over its fascination with polygamy any time soon.

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