Monday, April 5, 2010

Chloe Sevigny's True Confessions: More On Big Love's Worst Season

Chloe Sevigny’s recent candid comments on how bad this past season Chloe Sevigny's recent candid comments on how bad this past season of HBO’s Big Love was confirms what I wrote recently about the sad decline of the series. (See Big Love: Or the (Sometime) Tyranny of the Cable Networks from Thursday, March 11/10 on Critics at Large.) I was wrong only about the reasons for the show being handed a short slate of nine episodes instead of the ten it got last season (and the 12 each for seasons one and two). I had speculated that HBO was trying to jazz up the show and insisting its creators cram more storylines into the series - from Bill Henrickson running for political office to a gothic incest / artificial insemination plot - to make it move faster. But Sevigny, when asked on the A.V. Club website why it was so over the top this year, had this to say:

“It was awful this season, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not allowed to say that! [Gasps.] It was very telenovela. I feel like it kind of got away from itself. The whole political campaign seemed to me very farfetched. I mean, I love the show, I love my character, I love the writing, but I felt like they were really pushing it this last season. And with nine episodes, I think they were just squishing too much in. HBO only gave us nine Sundays, because they have so much other original programming—especially with The Pacific—and they only have a certain amount of Sundays per year, so we only got nine Sundays. I think that they had more story than episodes. I think that’s what happened.”
AVC:” It sort of became like Mormon Dynasty. “
CS:” [Laughs.] I know, I know. I’ve heard a lot of other things like that.”
AVC: What was it like when they first laid out what they wanted to accomplish this season? What was your reaction?
CS: “They don’t. We only get it episode to episode. We never know what’s going to happen in the next episode until we’re almost finished shooting the one we’re shooting at present. Me and the girls [Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin] definitely were not very happy with where it was going—or more kind of, “We really hope it’s going to work. It seems like they’re really pushing it.”
Sevigny has since backed away from what she said in the interview, citing the ‘fatigue’ she was experiencing at the South by Southwest music festival, but her words are not so easily erased. It is also unusual for a TV star to dis a series that they’re still part of - I can only think of one other example of that, Katherine Heigl’s slamming of Grey’s Anatomy, which she is finally leaving. Since most of Big Love’s cast, including Sevigny, has never committed to a television series before and have now been on it for four seasons, they likely care deeply about what happens to the series’ storyline. Whatever their feelings about it, it’s disturbing and unfortunate because not only was Big Love a terrible disappointment this season, after three virtually perfect seasons, but I really think the show was irreparably damaged. (Even though, as Sevigny pointed out in the interview, many fans have loved it this season anyway, a fact which surprised her.) In any case, the series won’t, I think, be able to come back from the haphazard plotting of 2010, particularly because it played a very revelatory trump card re: the Henrickson’s family’s hidden polygamy at the end of the season that should have ended the series. (I can’t spoil it by saying more).

The reason given by Sevigny for the shortened year is also baffling to me. In addition to tearing down the barriers of explicit sex, violence and language that hobble U.S. network television, HBO was supposed to be getting away from the tired old model of television shows launching in September and January. Why couldn’t Big Love have gotten a twelve episode slate? And why would it have mattered if The Pacific began three weeks later? The fans of the Tom Hanks' produced war drama would have tuned in whenever the show premiered anyway. (Interestingly, Hanks is also the executive producer of Big Love and thus likely not involved in the decision to shorten that series's run.)

In a year when ABC seems to be doing to the science fiction show Flashforward what CBS did to Jericho a few years back; that is, killing it by putting it on hiatus for several months and thereby ensuring that its audience won’t come back to it when it resumes, we now have to witness HBO doing similar damage to one of its finest offerings. They haven’t killed Big Love but they might just as well have since the harm done to it is so major. It only remains to be determined whether this is something HBO will do again when they want to ensure that the momentum of one hit show bleeds into another (regardless of whether the first series in line gets the amount of air time it needs to do justice to its concept). Even if this is a strategic mistake on HBO’s part that won’t be repeated, I doubt Big Love will ever return creatively to what it was before. (I also suspect the upcoming season will be the last one in the series, as five years seems to be the average for most popular cable shows.)

We won’t know until next season whether that will be the case but I am not getting my hopes up that it will ever be good again.

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

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