Arts & Culture

Jews Watching Big Love: Surviving Puberty

Our favorite show about another weird religion is back for its final season. Read More

By / January 18, 2011
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Sometimes, when you really love a television show through the years it can feel like you’re watching your child live his or her life.  Their hopes, their dreams are all put out there in front of you with vivid precision and you feel the joy of their successes and the pain of their failures as if they’re your own.  For those of us with paternal feelings toward HBO’s polygamist drama Big Love, it’s been a rollercoaster ride since the beginning.  The show was introduced to the world as a comedic drama about a man with three wives; a modern, ecclesiastical Three’s Company perhaps. Quickly, it became clear that Big Love was something much different.  Sure, there was the almost sitcom element of a man juggling three women and trying to meet all of their different needs, but there was something much more.  The campy opening credits with the Beach Boys theme song and ice skating sequence reminded us each episode to expect, if nothing else, a romp.  However, there were glimpses of this dark fantasy-type world of religious cultism and human subjugation, crazed and alienated fringe communities with their own set of rules and values that haunted the show’s main characters.  Other components of the show proved to be masterful.  With brilliant acting from an ensemble of character actors whose years of experience seemed to finally give way to this opportunity to shine.  As well as, a dark and magical sounding score by Mark Mothersbaugh and David Byrne, coupled with a genuine southern country and rock soundtrack featuring everything from Neko Case and Arlo Guthrie to the Misfits.   Big Love stood as a show that proved the importance of small details.  It continued that way for two groundbreaking seasons, always on an upward trajectory, and then last year, went tumbling down into a rut that could only be described as a kind of puberty.

In the fourth season, we the audience were put through a political campaign plot line that served to prod and annoy more than anything else, and an incestuous artificial insemination subterfuge that left us feeling like an over-worried parent, hoping it was all just a phase.  It seemed that even the show’s actors were starting to rebel when Chloe Sevigny, whose role as Nicolette Grant won her a Golden Globe lashed out in an interview, about how ridiculous the show had gotten.

Unfortunately, this was right when the world has started paying attention.  Those who’d caught on to Big Love early on had been spreading the word for years that this was on of the best shows on Television.  This, plus recognition from award shows had everyone tuning in at the most inopportune time.  Luckily, season four had its moments, and certain components were still in place.   Still, this wasn’t the Big Love that fans has been describing all those years, and it was announced a few months ago, that the upcoming fifth season, would be the show’s last.  A fully formed HBO original series is generally six seasons.  Still, the show would have a one season left to return to it’s glory, to put this beautifully fleshed out world to bed and perhaps deliver a history making series finale.  Sunday evening at 10PM, when the final season of Big Love began, long time fans let out a loud, “No!” at the very first frame of airtime.

What seemed like the greatest signifier of the show’s jaunt astray was the decision to replace its beloved, campy title sequence.  Last season introduced an entirely new opening and theme song.  The Engineers spacey track, “Home” accompanied by images of the cast falling through a black void, opened the doomed fourth season and, returned this Sunday to open the final season, thereby leading us all to think that the producers, like the show’s characters in that cursed title sequence, were still lost in the darkness.

While the political campaign plot last season had a “head in the clouds,” feel that irritated viewers, seeing the backlash of this polygamist coming out, felt much more grounded in reality.  The Henrickson’s are now in greater turmoil than ever before.  The family has become the black sheep of their community, their kids are being harassed at school and even Bill’s employee’s are turning on him.  Worst of all, each of Bill’s three wives has their own gripe.

Margene, who resisted coming to out to the world last season because of her burgeoning career was a TV jewelry saleswoman, has now been ostracized by the press as a jewelry “hawker,” and has been fired by the network, sans severance.  Margene begins this season in a state of constant dismay, but it seems that might she might soon find solace from a sales guru played by Grant Show (Melrose Place’s answer to Luke Perry.)  To see Margene swept up into the world of multi-level marketing, a cult in it’s own rite, won’t be unlike watching a beloved character fall victim to drug addiction, and should make for interesting final path for Margene.

Nikki, of all the wives, is perhaps the most okay with the current state of Henrickson family.  She spends most of premier episode protecting her children.  When her son Wayne is attacked at school, she scares the young bully into running into a pole and breaking his teeth.  Meanwhile, she lies to protect her daughter, Cara Lynn, from the truth that her grandmother recently burned her father and stepmother alive.  All of these things stand to illustrate the skewed way in which Nikki deals with the world.  Her disregard for social norms in bullying a young boy, and nonchalantly lying to her daughter about her dad’s murder, are shockingly normal for this woman who grew up in a gypsy-like, existence on the compound, which acts as something like “The Enchanted Forest” of the Big Love world.  However, Nikki’s one gripe with her family life is something that stands in direct opposition to her compound upbringing.  Nikki who grew up in a place where a man is expected to have at least three wives, is now tired of sharing her husband with two other women.

Then there’s Barb, the master matriarch, the first wife, who’s been the family’s glue since the beginning of the show, the Atlas to the Hendrickson’s world. Last season, however, in a completely out of character move, Barb attempted to sabotage her husband’s campaign, and then announced that she no longer felt as though she needed him.  In this season, we’re seeing Barb try to re-experience her life.  Be it Fundamentalism, or Mormon life in general, Barb is attempting to distance herself from her old life, starting with the “no drinking” aspect of Mormonism.  Marge buys a bottle of wine, first, she claims, to cook with, but then in a classic Big Love moment, we witness Barb, sitting in her kitchen with a boombox placed beside a bottle of wine on the kitchen table, blasting music as she pours a glass.  Our prediction: Barb converts to reform Judaism, becoming one of those hippy female rabbi’s who’s teaches yoga and sells homemade mezuzahs and menorahs.  Thus far, Barb is the Big Love character most likely to become a Jew although actress Ginifer Goodwin is actually Jewish and Barb’s mother on the show is played none other than Ellen Burnstyn.

This episode deals very little with one of the most intriguing aspects of the Big Love world: the compound of Juniper Creek, which is now led by Prophet Albert Grant, or Alby, who spent last season carrying on a homosexual affair and then mourning his lover’s suicide.  All we really see from the compound this episode is Albert returning from the dessert claiming he’s been cleansed and intends to cleanse the faith. He then expresses an intense hatred toward Bill Henrickson.  Bill more than ever is becoming a man with a lot on his plate.

Big Love is a show about people who are different from the majority of those around them, both in their beliefs and lifestyle.  Sometimes they are proud and sometimes they are ashamed, they deal with the fundamentalists by whom the world judges them, and with the temptation to blend in with their peers.  As fans, we find ourselves identifying so deeply with these people whose beliefs are so far from our own.  It’s the crux of Big Love, and an experience, that’s often eye opening at, and sometimes religious.