Thursday, March 11, 2010

Big Love: Or the (Sometime) Tyranny of the Cable Networks

Earlier this year I wrote in Critics at Large that HBO’s Big Love, the series about a polygamist family in Utah, was likely the best show currently on television - at least it was when I wrote the piece. But the series’ truncated fourth season, which ended on Sunday, was, regrettably, mostly a bust.

More to the point, the show was reduced to nine episodes this year, after being allotted ten of them last season and twelve each for its first two outings. I don’t know why HBO has taken this tack regarding the slowly shrinking lengths of the series’ seasons – I can’t imagine that its creators Will Scheffer and Mark Olson want fewer episodes to play with – but this season was definitely affected by its shorter run. I also suspect that the network may have tampered with the show, insisting that it move faster, be less subtle and cram more plot points onto its storyline, in order to garner higher ratings by attracting audiences who want a glitzier, more dramatic product. That’s the only conclusion I can come up, without being privy to the behind the scenes machinations of the series, but for whatever reason, Big Love this season was no longer the smooth, flawlessly plotted and carefully laid out series I had come to love.

Without indulging in any spoilers, I can say that, after a strong start, Big Love became weighed down by too many things going on in the lives of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), his immediate family, of three wives and nine children, and the greater Mormon community, with whom they interacted. Some new developments, such as the introduction of a Washington lobbyist, superbly played by Sissy Spacek, whose motives were murky and compelling, worked but almost everything else that ensued, was either top heavy, unresolved or unconvincing. The series even veered too much into the gothic territory of David Lynch. What it didn’t do was continue to gently unveil its smart, clever and moving world view, comprised of polygamists who just want to live their lives as they see fit, according to the tenets of their faith, and also, more problematically, to be accepted as who they are. It didn’t drop that skein and, in fact, ended the season with a provocative action by Henrickson that harkened back to its pilot episode but it was also rushed and not thought through in that regard. In fact, its very final scene is one that should have ended the series and not acted as a set up for its filth season, which once again will have ten episodes.

It’s a far cry from the way last season ended, with an equally dramatic but more plausible finale. Season Three’s ten episodes didn’t seem too short and not a scene or action came out of nowhere or failed to satisfy. So what happened in Season Four? I think that Olson and Scheffer were not initially informed that they would only get nine episodes but likely told this after filming started on the season. Thus they had to compensate for having fewer episodes to write by throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the show’s mix. The delicate balance that ensued in its first three seasons was pretty much absent this year, making for a frustrating viewing experience. If so, does this mean HBO is cutting back permanently on the show, in terms of ordered episodes, despite its increased ratings in 2010? Do those improved numbers mean the series will remain over the top and too frantic? It’s worrisome and this season’s hasty conclusion doesn’t bode well for Season Five. But it also points to something that is rarely remarked upon, namely that even HBO and the other cable channels play the ratings / popularity game, albeit not to the extent that network TV does.

After all, HBO canceled David Milch’s superb and revolutionary western series Deadwood just before it began its third and final season, forcing Milch to move up significant plot developments in order to try to end the series as he initially planned. Then the network reneged on the promised pair of two hour TV movies that would have allowed Deadwood to conclude its storyline properly. The reasons the channel gave for Deadwood’s cancellation, despite Sopranos – like critical acclaim, were twofold: that European audiences weren’t embracing it the way its American fans were and that the series, which created a whole set to represent the growing frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota, was too expensive to produce. High expenses were also given as the reason for HBO canceling Rome, another locally popular series, after its second season. Conversely, HBO pressured David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, to continue that series, past the five seasons he had originally conceived of doing, into a protracted and pretty much unnecessary sixth season.

This network – like behaviour doesn’t just extend to pay cable series. The basic cable series Saving Grace, which starred Holly Hunter as a troubled, hard living Oklahoma cop who is visited by an unlikely angel, is finishing its fourth and final season at the end of March, despite high ratings for its network TNT, because DVD sales of the show have been sluggish and, again, European audiences aren’t interested in the series. This state of affairs isn’t as drastic as network actions when shows are cancelled after nine or ten episodes, without being given a chance to succeed but it’s not a benign situation, either. For all their talk of aping the British model, where TV series rarely get axed before their time and only occasionally run on too long (i.e.: Absolutely Fabulous), and despite their admirable risk taking in terms of tackling provocative subject matter, American cable networks aren’t immune to outside forces that have nothing to do with the quality of what they air. And as long as they insist on paying attention to DVD sales or European ratings or some other factors that have nothing to with the actual numbers of Americans watching their shows, we’ll continue to see some of their finest series prematurely ended or changed beyond recognition. Theirs is a better system than free TV but it could be even better still.

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

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