Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season (DVD)
For viewers new to HBO's acclaimed series Big Love
, starting with these nine episodes (on three discs) from the fourth season may be like jumping aboard a moving passenger train--there are many strange folks around, and there's a lot going on, so it may take a while to find your footing. (Fortunately, the boxed set includes episode synopses, "previously on" and "next on" teasers, a look back at the first three seasons, and brief "Inside the Episode" bits in which cocreators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer discuss the key elements of each new chapter.) Of course, old hands will already be familiar with the many trials and tribulations of Mormon businessman Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), his three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn as Barb, Chloë Sevigny as Nicki, and Ginnifer Goodwin as Margene), and a brood of children now approaching double figures. The family's nemesis (and Nicki's father), "prophet" Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), is out of the picture early on, but a scary new villain emerges in the form of JJ (Zeljko Ivanek), a skeletal, hollow-eyed schemer and Nicki's ex-husband, who, for starters, marries her mother and connives with her brother Alby (Matt Ross). And there are numerous other story lines to follow, as Bill and his Native American partners struggle to get their new casino going; Bill contemplates a run for political office, hoping to use that bully pulpit to convince his constituents that polygamy isn't so bad after all (and outing himself in the process); two of the wives struggle with carnal temptations offered by other men; Bill's loony parents (Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie) become involved in smuggling exotic birds from Mexico; and on and on.
Many of these situations are patently absurd, and the tone of the show--satirical but not parodic; amusing but not in the least sit-commy--often follows suit. But there are serious issues here as well; aside from polygamy, the stigma of being gay and Mormon male is handled with considerable poignance. As usual, the performances are excellent (Oscar winner Sissy Spacek appears as a Washington lobbyist in several episodes), as are the writing and direction. And even if many adherents agree that this is not the series' finest season, Big Love is sui generis; the fact that there's nothing else like it out there is by itself a good reason for watching. --Sam Graham