Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Power of Big Love (Part Two)

Big Love differs from other cable series in its unpredictable casting. The Sopranos, True Blood, Mad Men and Six Feet Under, for example, generally have cast unfamiliar, even unknown actors, in the leads, so as to avoid viewer preconceptions. (I was barely aware of who Edie Falco (Carmelo Soprano) and James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) were when The Sopranos began and didn’t know most of the casts of the other shows.) Big Love has taken the opposite tack by signing on better known actors and setting them down in unlikely roles. I would never have imagined casting American indie actress Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, American Psycho), as the repressed, sexually and otherwise, Nicki, Roman Grant’s daughter, whom Bill married for political reasons, in an attempt to being some rapport between him and his father-in-law, and who finds herself caught between conflicting loyalties to her husband and father. She’s a revelation in that role. Similarly, I never realized how good Jeanne Tripplehorn could be when she had a part worthy of her talent. The actress, who was previously best known for her ordinary roles in bad movies like Basic Instinct and Waterworld, is superb as Bill’s only legally recognized wife, who was never born to the polygamous faith and who has thus never quite reconciled herself to it. (The reasons she agreed to it are revealed at the outset of the show but I won’t spoil that for you.)The same could be said for Bill Paxton (Twister, Apollo 13), who as Bill Henrickson, plumbs the depths of ordinariness, even banality, to get at a multilayered persona beneath, someone who is more like Roman than he can admit. That’s a tour de force performance Paxton never got to give in his competent but one dimensional movie roles.

I did know how good Mary Kay Place could be in a juicy part. I’ve been a fan of hers since she played the ingenuous country music singer in Norman Lear’s groundbreaking soap spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman but I don’t think she’s ever played the bad gal in her career. In Big Love, she aces the part of Adaleen as if she was born to villainous roles. Bruce Dern, of course, has played all manner of baddies, from the guy who killed John Wayne in The Cowboys to the psychotic terrorist in Black Sunday but he’s uncommonly fine – and funny – as Bill’s father Frank, an unrepentant asshole who simply delights in being one. He’s well paired with David Lynch mainstay Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Inland Empire), who gets to stretch as Lois, Bill’s crazy mother but a perfect foil/love match for Frank. It’s not a match made in heaven but those certainly deserve each other. But the most indelible character and performance in a show full of so many of them, has to be Harry Dean Stanton’s portrait of Roman Grant. He’s scary as hell in the show, radiating what can only be called pure evil as his machinations continually ensnare Bill and his family. Stanton has a lengthy, critically acclaimed resume (Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Alpha Dog, among many others) but, again, I don’t think he’s ever been as riveting as he is in Big Love. When Roman is on screen, you can’t tear your eyes away from him. These great roles (and great performances), as well as others in the series, such as Canadian actor Shawn Doyle’s incarnation of Bill’s troubled brother Joey, Ginnifer Goodwin’s sexy, enthusiastic turn as Bill’s third wife Margene, and Matt Ross’s portrayal of Alby, Roman’s ambitious, closeted son, are a testament to how much careful thought Big Love’s creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer have brought to the show.

Big Love is also remarkable in how consistent is. I haven’t seen any bad acting or even bad episodes so far; another trait it shares with Six Feet Under, which rarely put a foot wrong in its five year run. In that respect, Big Love is, perhaps, fortunate that it’s flying under the critical radar. Its creators are free to do what they want with the show, without being pressured by their network to either damage their show by extending its run past its scheduled life span (as in The Sopranos, which went on a little too long) or second guessing themselves to keep viewer and critical support (like Mad Men, which collapsed under the onset of the publicity it garnered its first season). Big Love simply continues to enlarge, enrich and fine tune its created world, to the benefit of all those who value excellence in the arts.

This season, Big Love further unveils the travails of the Henricksons as Bill compromises his religious beliefs by investing his capital in a casino, a risky move in a religious culture that frowns on gambling. It also beings him into contact – and potential conflict – with his partners, the Blackfoot Native-Americans who run the casino. No doubt, that will allow Big Love to add a new facet to its rich, panoramic portrait of modern American life, in addition to its previous deft handling of such hot button, relevant issues, as fundamentalism, assimilation, sexuality and prejudice, among so many others. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s not too late to get into it. The first three seasons (32 episodes) are all available on DVD. If you blitz them, and I think once you start watching, you will, you can then catch up to Season Four on The Movie Network’s On Demand, which will likely run for the next six months, at least. Check Big Love out. You won’t be sorry you did.

--Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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