Wednesday, January 06, 2010

'Big Love' season 4 review - Sepinwall on TV

Over at is my review of "Big Love" at the start of season 4, which begins Sunday. Unfortunately, the re-examination of the series' priorities I was hoping for after last year's "Come, Ye Saints" didn't happen, and all the elements I find distracting (Juniper Creek, Bill's businesses, etc.) are still very, very present.

I think I'm going to take a similar approach to blogging this season of the show that I did for much of the most recent season of "Dexter": Assuming I've watched an episode, I'll put up a post for discussion purposes, but I'm not going to write much unless I have much to say (as happened last year with "Come, Ye Saints"). At this point, it's pretty clear to me that the show is what it is, and not what I want it to be, and there's no point beating that dead horse each week, even as I enjoy certain aspects of it.


Unknown said...

To me the Juniper Creek storyline was the BEST thing the show had going for it.

Harry Dean Stanton, Bill's Mom and Dad, all great characters.

LDP said...

I gave up on this show a long time ago. In theory, it should be the most interesting thing on TV, but it just isn't. It's boring.

I couldn't stand the Juniper Creek stuff. Bill's parents were tiresome excuses for the actors playing them to ham it up.

belinda said...

OK, from what I remember (which could be wrong):
Margie has 2 babies/kids - can't remember their gender. From the pics, a baby and a boy, it seems.
Nicki has twin boys. And oh, the 16 year old girl.
Barb has three kids -Seyfried, the oldest son (can't remember his name), and a younger 10 or so girl with glasses. Did something happen to her that I can't remember, where is she? And did I miss a kid - there's that extra young boy in the picture? Man, it's tough to keep up with the family members.

I'm hoping for more family/wives stuff too. Maybe after the first few eps dealing with the business and JC, we'd get right back into it.

Anonymous said...

belinda - I think Margie had two boys from the start of the series, and then recently the baby girl, so that explains the "extra" kid, but I had the same thought about Barb's missing youngest daughter. Where's "Teeny"?? She was getting increasingly awkward-looking and hasn't been in the series much, but she should be in that family portrait!

Smoke Monster said...

I heard that the actress who plays Teeny has been recast so they probably just don`t want to add a new actress to the portrait without first making that explicit on the show.

I love the Juniper Creek storylines. Without Juniper Creek I fail to see how Big Love is different than any other suburban soap like Desperate Housewives.

Anonymous said...

Sure, "Come Ye Saints" was a great episode, but there was two and a half seasons worth of family drama that lead up to it. They can't do episodes like that every week. If they did, we'd just have the wives repeating the same conflicts and taking out their frustrations on each other again and again. One of the best things about this show is how some stories and character relationships develop slowly over time, such as the Ben-Margene relationship.

Season 3 of Big Love was fantastic. I've enjoyed the show from the start but they really took it to another level last year. I have high hopes for the new season.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Without Juniper Creek I fail to see how Big Love is different than any other suburban soap like Desperate Housewives.

Because of the polygamy thing?

And I'm not saying Juniper Creek should disappear from the show. I just don't want it to take over the show like it so often does.

JanieJones said...

I, too, like the inner dynamics of the three wives. I've always enjoyed Amanda's character because she doesn't subscribe to the principle and it always seems fresh to me.
It sounds like a very crowded season with politics, Juniper Creek, the houseware and casino businesses.
Although I do enjoy Alby, Adaleen and Nikki's shenanigans to a certain point.
I'll be curious to see how Ivanek and Spacek's storylines fit into another shortened season.
Also, Dustin Lance Black will be missing as a producer if I'm not mistaken. I wonder, if any, impact it will have on S4.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Sure, "Come Ye Saints" was a great episode, but there was two and a half seasons worth of family drama that lead up to it. They can't do episodes like that every week.

This is a fair point, and one I made in an earlier draft of the column. No, you can't do a show with as many big revelations and/or confrontations as "Come, Ye Saints" every week. They spent a long time building up to it. But even in less incident-rich episodes, I find the stuff with the wives and kids just much, much more interesting than anything that's happening on the compound, or with the hardware store or casino, and I think there's enough for a compelling weekly show there, even if big secrets aren't coming out every week.

Rick said...

If anything, the problem is that Juniper Creek plays out as if it were Desperate Housewives. Rat poison mysteries, tying up Bill's Dad to a chair for an extended time, every plot of Alby's- they all could have come straight from the pen of Marc Cherry.
The show reaches another level- an HBO-worthy level- when it focuses on emotions of realistic characters trying to find their way in the unusual situation of polygamy. The storylines that I keep coming back for all have this in common.
Sarah loving her family, but disagreeing with all their beliefs.
Sarah's friend Heather disagreeing with the Henrickson lifestyle, and trying to guide Sarah to keep some beliefs but not others.
Ben trying to learn what it means to be a man when his only role model is his polygamist father.
Barb dealing with the loss of family identity, both as a parent and as a daughter.
Nikki dealing with the exact opposite loss, losing her compound identity to a suburban housewive's.
Bill struggling to redefine "the principle" for a modern time, and to keep his family adhering to it.
Mostly, the story that keeps me is Margene's slow, slow, slow realization that she gave something up to have the family she always wanted.
Those seven story lines would easily keep a show going for thirteen episodes a season. Everything else on the show- business troubles, Juniper Creek hijinks, etc., has none of that emotional resonance.

Tom O'Keefe said...

I think the show feels obligated to keep Juniper Creek in the forefront. Admittedly, Juniper is responsible for some of the more boring (and more cartoonish) aspects of the show. But if Big Love were to just "focus on the family" (pun intended) they'd have a hard time keeping an anti-polygamy slant. Juniper Creek serves as an ever-present reminder of what this lifestyle tends to evolve into. Personally, I wouldn't have a problem with a "judgement free" take on polygamy. The most interesting parts of the show revolve around the machinations and etiquette involved with polygamy.

Trilby said...

I just hope we don't have a re-appearance of Ana. Boy, did she ever grate on me!

And I've come to pretty much loathe Bill, but I love the show. I love Nikki's sour looks and hyjinks. Don't mind the Juniper Creek storylines at all, and I think the actors in that area are great.

The casino? Eh. Who cares. But it showcases what a hypocrit Bill is.

Anonymous said...

For the life of me, I can't remember who on earth the girl in white on the extreme right of the picture is. Can anyone please help me?

JanieJones said...

Anon-the girl on extreme right is Nikki's 15 year old daughter that she gave up. She had her when she was tied to JJ (Ivanek). I can't remember her character's name.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Janie, now I remember.

Mike F said...

I think Alan's done a pretty good job of describing why this show is a bit of a bore. Bill's character isn't that interesting; he falls well short of Don Draper's charisma in big moments as well as in quiet internal moments. There are a number of characters on this show that I feel I have to suffer through.

Its a show I can watch with my wife, but its not a show that is exciting. There's been a handful of great scenes and a couple great episodes. There's been a lot of things that are humorous as well. The acting is sometimes very good and the writing is also sometimes good. But let's face it, its not groundbreaking as a drama despite its unique storyline...and its not particularly exciting or sexy or even hilarious.

Its just a show you can watch, that you sometimes enjoy and that will sometimes leave you hoping the plot moves past whatever chapter it is that week.

I do think the show would be vastly improved if Juniper Creek appeared only in flashbacks and a once-per-season trip back to the compound to visit.

Chalmers said...

I think "Big Love" does break ground as a drama in its treatment of religion and its surfeit of strong women characters.

For most of TV's history, religion was ignored or (later) mocked. Even a show as great as "The Sopranos" set up Fr. Phil as someone concerned with dopey film criticism rather than his faith.

For all his villainy, Roman is a true believer, not the typical TV preacher/huckster. Nearly every character at one point has confronted his or her beliefs in a realistic yet dramatic manner. If not for "Come, Ye Saints," I think we'd all still be talking about about Barb's devastating excommunication.

I'd be willing to listen to other choices, but I can't remember a show with as many compelling women. Even beyond the wives, I'm much more likely to remember a line from Adaleen, Wanda or Lois than any of the male supporting characters.

And by the way, Nicki's daughter with JJ is named Cara Lynn.

a.e. said...

I'm with Chalmers. I still really enjoy this show precisely because its treatment of religion (i.e. not mocking, but truly showing the crisis of faith many people face during their life) and the many strong female characters. I love Barb and I often can identify with her character; I also can identify with Nicky's insecurities and find her over the top ways hysterical. I re-watched the last season this past weekend and really enjoy the show. No, its not Mad Men, but Mad Men is a workplace drama which makes it more relatable. I think what makes Big Love different is that the show deals with religion and the ways people's faith's drive their everyday lives - for good or bad. For me, that is extremely compelling but I can see how other people find that boring.

Mike F said...

I didn't say the show was boring...I was saying its just a good show, not a great one...because it isn't that tight and isn't as consistently entertaining as other shows I think of as top tier

Abhimanyu Das said...

I absolutely loathe the subplot about Bill's parents and find them to be the most annoying characters in the show. However, the other stuff in the Juniper Creek storyline is - I think - necessary. I think Big Love needs external pressures like Juniper Creek and the business problems to counterbalance the family storylines. Hate to be the populist here but it injects some energy and narrative drive to the proceedings in a way that I don't think the (admittedly brilliant) wives storylines could pull off on their own.

It makes me very sad that Amanda Seyfried is leaving the show. To me, she's the heart/conscience of Big Love and with her going away, there aren't very many characters I can wholeheartedly root for. Certainly not Bill or Nikki. And even Margie and Barb aren't particularly loveable characters, IMO.

Unknown said...

I agree totally with your review. I for one would love to see more focus on the family and the politics with the three wives

KeepingAwake said...

I like Big Love even though it's an imperfect show.

You are right that the best part of it is always the family-centered stuff. And I also think, at its best, it asks and explores significant questions about faith: What is it? Where does it come from? How does it inform and expand your life while simultaneously constricting it? How are you ever sure you got it right? Are you ever sure you got it right?

Juniper Creek can be cartoonish, sure. I think that it has to be to some degree, both to balance the earnestness of the Henricksons and to keep one aware of how abusive and tawdry polygamy can be without making viewers change the channel. It also helps to underscore the point that all religion becomes political at some point and becomes indistinguishable from a power grab in the worst of situations.

And Bill has been shown over the years to be less of a hero and more of a fatally flawed man who believes himself to be a hero. He far more akin to Roman than he believes himself to be. His hubris is going to be the end of him at the rate it's going. He has the decency to occasionally question what in his thinking and belief is simply pride, lust and a need to be in control, but he often falls on the wrong side of such questions.

I definitely agree with you that this show is really all about the women. That's a very rare thing on television and wonderful to see!

Anonymous said...

what happened to "Teenie" Bill and Barb's daughter?

A.J. said...

Last season my reservations about this show evaporated; every episode was potent; the characters evolving (unlike many series that keep repeating the same behavior); it keep me intrigued, and loyal.

I love Mad Men the most, but I prefer a season opener like this one, a little too jam-packed yet full of punch, to MM's first few episodes last season, which for me were too empty & suburban. For all its rough edges, Big Love's opening gambit had great moments:
Alby finally getting caught out of the closet.
Dead Roman as a pawn.
The shifting power struggle with the women; Barb the nervous one, Margene the confident emerging woman.
The hint that Nikki is getting scammed by her daughter.
Yes, the hijinks at Juniper Creek can be grotesque, I could do without Dern & Zabriski's scenery chomping, but the place is critical -- the dark underside of the life, a necessary counter to the scrubbed home life of Bill and wives.
And Bill is not particularly sympathetic or likeable, I can't imagine that any ego that big is meant to be embraced by those around him.
I can't wait to see how all these threads weave together.