Television

'Big Love' Goes Out As Comedy (And That's Kind Of A Tragedy)

Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Jeanne Tripplehorn are among the actors who will appear on Sunday night's series finale of HBO's Big Love. i i

hide captionChloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Jeanne Tripplehorn are among the actors who will appear on Sunday night's series finale of HBO's Big Love.

Isabella Vosmikova/HBO
Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Jeanne Tripplehorn are among the actors who will appear on Sunday night's series finale of HBO's Big Love.

Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Jeanne Tripplehorn are among the actors who will appear on Sunday night's series finale of HBO's Big Love.

Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

Big Love came into this world as a drama series, but this Sunday, when its final episode airs on HBO, it will depart it as a comic one.

Check out Fresh Air's interview with the creators of Big Love about Sunday night's finale here.

When I say "comic," I don't mean "Ha-ha-ha." I mean the characters behave like comic archetypes. They repeat the same actions over and over, until their inability to change makes them simply ludicrous.

It's not a change the writers and producers made willfully — the show is still meant to be deadly serious. As it follows the Henricksons, a polygamous family living openly in modern Utah, it tackles enormous themes: the intersection of love and faith, the conflict between belonging to a group and belonging to one's self. There are so many consequences — so much hurt and hope and loss — that no one could possibly mistake it for a yuk factory.

For its first three seasons, Big Love tackled these ideas gracefully. I was uncomfortable with polygamy, but the show made me care about these polygamists, and soon enough, I saw them as a metaphor for any community fighting to stick together. I will never forget the moment when Sarah, the oldest child, dances with her father, Bill, at a wedding. She begs for a way to believe in him, even though she can't believe in his choices. That moment captured my own adolescent memories of growing apart from my parents.

In its last two seasons, though, Big Love has traded its relatable humans for ridiculous archetypes.

Take Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), the middle wife who was raised on a polygamous compound. She's always been feisty and abrasive, but this season, she's ossified into a gargoyle. She spews nasty comments whenever anyone feels good about themselves, and she sees every situation as an affront to her security: Her daughter wants to hang out with a friend? He'll ruin the family! Her sister wives want to run the family finances? They'll ruin the family! Her neighbor's driving too fast? He'll ruin his tires! And the family!

Even worse, because Nicki has stopped evolving as a character but still needs things to do, her actions have become cartoonish. In the penultimate episode, she wakes her daughter from a dead sleep just to hiss that she's nothing but a manipulator and a liar. It's like an outtake from Mommie Dearest, and it ignores Nicki's previous growth.

Likewise, every week, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the first wife, says she needs a new spiritual home, but whenever she steps in a new direction, the series pulls her back. Stuck at square one, she's forced to reiterate the same old complaints. It's infuriating.

I don't know why the series veered in this direction. Maybe the creative team decided to save the action for the last episode. Maybe they were stuck with so many characters that they couldn't treat them carefully anymore. Maybe they're convinced the show is just as human as it's ever been.

Regardless, I'll watch the finale with a divided heart. I'm sure I'll be entertained — even at its messiest, Big Love is well-acted and absorbing — but I'll never forget the humans who used to be onscreen.

Mark Blankenship writes about pop culture at The Critical Condition.

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