The problem with having what is arguably the best, and certainly the largest, cast on television is that if you want to give them all something interesting to do for a season that lasts only nine episodes, things can get a little crazy.
That's what the creators, and fans, of "Big Love" discovered over the last few months as a soap operatic tangle of story lines -- Bill's running for state office! Ana's back and she's pregnant! Nicki's mother married Nicki's ex-husband! The Greens kidnapped Frank, Lois and Ben! J.J. is a Mormon Nazi! Sissy Spacek is being really mean! -- left many wondering whether that was a shark fin circling in the distance.
Uncharacteristically choppy and literally all over the place, the fourth season sacrificed the show's signature brilliant attention to detail for action, winding up with more plots than the Juniper Creek graveyard before coming to an explosive conclusion Sunday night with a finale that felt at times like a cross between "The Candidate," "The Women" and "The Boys From Brazil."
"We asked a lot of our viewers this season," said Mark V. Olsen, one of the creators of "Big Love." "But we're ambitious, we wanted to dig a little deeper."
"We wanted to see it taken to the next logical step," added his co-creator, Will Scheffer. "When these people are exposed, what will happen to the marriage? And we wanted to get there fast." (The two, who were in Salt Lake City researching Season 5, spoke first by cellphone, then by e-mail.)
Indeed, this season's A plot followed Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) as he corralled his reluctant wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) into backing his state Senate campaign; the final episode ended with him outing himself, and his family.
That Bill did this on the same day he drove to Juniper Creek to save Nicki from being impregnated with an incestuously fertilized egg as part of a eugenics plot led by ex-husband J.J. Walker (Zeljko Ivanek) is a testament to Bill's increasing superpowers. Previously, he had driven to Mexico like a fundamentalist action hero to save members of his family kidnapped by Hollis Greene (Luke Askew). When Joey (Shawn Doyle) tried to kill Hollis, Bill offered himself in exchange for his son and parents, prompting Mama Lois (Grace Zabriskie) to cut off Hollis' arm. With a machete.
Throw in Alby's (Matt Ross) lover hanging himself and Spacek as a nasty, Bill-hating Washington player and, well, even your biggest fans will start to talk. As Olsen and Scheffer now know only too well.
"We are students of our blogs," said Olsen, "and we know a lot of people feel that things moved too quickly this season."
"We definitely had this ambition for it to be larger than life," added Scheffer, "to take us into next season."
They also had this enormous cast. So while the two went into the writers room with three major stories -- Bill's campaign, Alby's relationship and Spacek's corrupt lobbyist -- they wanted to make sure that none of the other characters suffered.
"We're an ensemble show. We love our franchises -- teens, wives and Bill, Juniper Creek and Greenes, etc. -- and we love our actors. When we discover a new character, or embrace a new cast member, we're loath to let them go," said Olsen.
"Once we crack the major season stories, we turn our attention to the ensemble. What about Joey and Wanda? What about Mary Kay Place [who plays Nicki's mother, Adaleen]? Is Sissy's story commensurate with her stature as an actress? And Zeljko -- we felt a strong obligation to give him something memorable and deep. To earn him, as it were."
Olsen and Scheffer had long intended to do a eugenics story based, they said, on the Kingston clan, a reclusive and large group of fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy. When they decided to make that J.J.'s story, they did ask themselves whether it would be better to hold off for a season that wasn't quite so jampacked.
But, Scheffer said, "we felt the story was so dark and so disturbing, we feared it would be better played in a slimmer fashion as a mystery that didn't reveal itself until the finale."
And for the record, neither will back down from their premise that someone like Bill could run for office, especially in a special election with a four-week campaign window. "This is a state Senate seat in a rinky-dink state," said Olsen. "And people with secrets run for president all the time, as John Edwards proved."
Paxton is one of the many miracle workers of "Big Love," consistently making his character believable as a devout and loving man when so many of his actions seem selfish and almost pathological. With "Days of Our Lives" lines like "Well, great, and now I have to tell Nicki that Joey killed Roman," this season put him, and his character, to the test, which is also something the creators very much intended.
Day of reckoning
"We wanted to take this guy to his personal day of reckoning," said Olsen. "We have pushed at the tether of his likability because we wanted to get Bill to realize he screwed up."
"I think we gave him his best season yet," added Scheffer.
Still, the two concede that this season has taught them a few lessons. They plan to "re-tool" their writing process and, more important, whittle down the cast.
"We think the show has been the richer for having such a large ensemble," said Scheffer, "but we also feel we're at a breaking point. We've got to pare it down and refocus."
If the thought of losing one beloved character or another in the cause of the greater good is nerve-racking to the show's fans, well, no one said making a brilliant, well-paced, complicated and meaningful television show was easy. As we all learned this season.