Big Love, American Style


Tonight is the series finale of Big Love, one of the key shows of what we might call the HBO interregnum — the period after the first generation of drama hits went away (it was a year after the end of Six Feet Under and a year before the end of The Sopranos) and it seemed unable to come up with new shows of the same impact. Big Love is sort of a transitional show. It follows the pattern of those HBO successes: a stylish melodrama with a sense of humour and a commitment to showing the dark side of a typical TV genre (in this case, the family drama). But it got broader and soapier than they did, and seemed to use stories as metaphors for topical issues almost in the way that science fiction shows do. That’s a format that True Blood would eventually use, but Big Love arguably got caught in the middle of that transition, never quite sure if it wanted to be a serious drama or a crazy soap.

This all came to a head in the controversial fourth season, which tried to cram an incredible amount of craziness into only nine episodes. Bill Paxton, who defends the season for its ambition (though ambition, as always, doesn’t equal achievement), seems to think that the negative reactions cost the show the chance to have a longer run:

I grant you that last season may have tried to put too big a foot in too big a shoe, but they were cramming those episodes chock full of great stuff. I was surprised that we were so taken to task for it. And it did not help us keep the show going. If [people] would just watch it again, they’d realize that we put too many ingredients in the stew, but the show’s always been so ambitious and so well written and so full of stuff. I personally grew to resent that whole brouhaha and I think that it ultimately killed the show. Again, I don’t know the political ins and outs of that, but I know that it didn’t help us going into Season 5.

Of course it could be that the show was simply unlucky that there wasn’t a polygamy craze in pop culture to compare with the vampire craze that helped lift True Blood to smash hit status. In any case, in preparation for tonight’s finale, Jace Lacob collects together 10 memorable moments from the run of Big Love, most of them from the third season.

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Big Love, American Style

  1. Is Big Love the only HBO show from that period to survive more than a couple of seasons? It somehow made it through the "we are going to cancel everything that doesn't do as well as the Sopranos" mindset that led to Carnivale, Deadwood, and Rome all having short shelf lives.

    On the subject of Big Love (which I never watched), I think the cancellation may also have had to do with the fact that at least one of the stars (Chloe Sevigny) had publicly criticized the show, though she later tried to backtrack. When the talent isn't that interested in continuing, maybe it's time to call it a day.

    • Chloe was just staying in character – bitter, lashing out, selfish.

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