Friday (Jan. 8) marked the first day of the January Television Critics Association press tour, which will be dominating this blog’s coverage through Jan. 18. I’ll then have one day to do laundry before heading off to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, which will dominate this blog’s coverage for the following week. That’s a lot of domination of coverage and it means that sometimes things that I’d like to write standard long reviews for may need to get slightly reduced treatment.
Take, for example, this Sunday’s pretty terrific assortment of original programming. “Chuck” is returning and I definitely want to say a few words reminding viewers to check out what may be TV’s most entertaining hour, but we’ve got my two-part interview with series co-creator Josh Schwartz (Read Part I and Part II) and the show will also be a new addition to our Monkeys as Critics recap blog. I also want to get in some notice for the landmark 450th episode of “The Simpsons” and the Morgan Spurlock documentary airing alongside it, as both are fun.
Then there’s “Big Love,” which returns to HBO on Sunday looking to continue its steady season-to-season improvement with the premiere of its fourth set of episodes. Since I know the show has dedicated fans, it’s another new addition to the Monkeys as Critics recap blog.
[A short-ish review of the start of the “Big Love” season after the break, with some spoilers, albeit not any of the big ones…]
When I enjoy “Big Love,” I often love it. More than a few critics thought that “Come, Ye Saints” was one of 2009’s very best hours of scripted drama and showed just how much power the series can pack when it isn’t seemingly trying to cover the entire map and I was part of that pack. In fact, I had the third season in my Top 10 of 2009.
“Big Love” is never a show that’s suffered from lack of scope. The focus has been on Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) and their ever-growing brood of children (nine at last count). That would have been enough story for a half-dozen shows, but “Big Love” has also kept an eye on the polygamist compound at Juniper Creek, which was good for fans of Harry Dean Stanton, Mary Kay Place, Grace Zabriskie, Bruce Dern, Matt Ross and the other fine actors who populate that side of the narrative, but it’s occasionally rendered the overall storytelling a little obtuse.
Even when I’m at my most engaged in “Big Love,” I often forget what’s happened in the B, C or D storylines in any given week and I’ll admit that between seasons, I forgot the names of nearly every character, because there just isn’t enough room in my brain to retain all of that information. Exploring characters and their tortured motivations is a “Big Love” strength (the cast is short on weak links), but unfolding big, season-long arcs hasn’t been. But darned if “Big Love” doesn’t seem on the brink of a clear and present season-long arc for Season Four.
Things don’t necessarily start out promisingly in that regard in Sunday’s premiere, titled “Free At Last.” The title presumably refers to what happened to Stanton’s tyrannical Roman at the end of the third season finale. Of course a man like Roman Grant can’t just die, at least not without making his presence felt for a full episode. [Yes, I suspect his presence will be felt for many any episode longer, but probably not in quite this literal a manner.] The premiere has to address all of the loose ends from Season Three and the plot and tone are all over the place, veering between the melodrama that “Big Love” does well and an eerie broad comedy which, under the circumstances are both funny and also out-of-place. Because so much happens and because Sevigny and Place are so great, the premiere isn’t unsatisfying, but it’s exhausting. Also superb in the premiere is Ross, whose Albie may be coming into his own in terrifying fashion in what’s sure to be a big season.
For me, everything comes together in “The Greater Good,” which finds Bill wondering if he’s received a testimony to run for state senate against a polygamy opponent played by the ever-reliable Tom Amandes. It’s a possibility that raises concerns for his family for a variety of reasons: Margene’s jewelry sales are growing ever-stronger. The deal with the Blackfoot casino is beginning to take up more of Barb’s time. And Nicolette, still dealing with her feelings for Charles Esten’s Ray Henry, trying to relate to her newly reconnected daughter and dodge her skulking baby-daddy (Zeljko Ivanek), thinks Bill has to return to the compound as a prophet.
The conflict for the season appears to be one of Prophets vs. Profits, with Bill’s political or spiritual callings either running afoul of the family’s pursuit of the American Dream, or else enhancing those financial prospects. It’s all about the pursuit of happiness, whether it’s Bill’s divine mission, Sarah’s (Amanda Seyfried) plans to marry Scott (Aaron Paul) or Lois’ (Grace Zabriskie) inexplicable new business selling exotic birds.
Since “confusion” is one of the things Paxton plays best, I’m digging the choices that Bill seems to be facing by “The Greater Good” and I can see how this could play out well over the season. I’m also intrigued by the power-plays Albie is making back at Juniper Creek — with the help of the always welcome Anne Dudek, as Laura — especially since the character is also becoming more open in his homosexuality, even getting something close to a boyfriend. Also doing typically good work are Goodwin, Tripplehorn and Sevigny, plus Ivanek as his most creepy and Seyfried at her most lovely.
So it’s a fine start to the fourth season for “Big Love” and I’m sure that Todd VanDerWerff will do a great job following the show on Monkeys As Critics.
“Big Love” premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 10.