Every time HBO renews its deeply involving polygamy-themed dramedy soap "Big Love," it says something about how the series boasts a huge contingent of extremely loyal fans in the renewal press release. If the show's PaleyFest session is any indication, those fans are exactly as legion as HBO says they are, and they're about as passionate as TV fans get as well. The surprisingly in-depth panel, at turns thoughtful about the show, at turns incredibly goofy, offered up hints about what will happen in Season Four, discussed the series' relationship to real-world polygamists and allowed for plenty of time for the actors to wax about how they see their characters. And the extremely crowded room (far more crowded than last week's "Dollhouse" panel and slightly more crowded than the panel for "Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog") ate it all up.
"Big Love" can be a hard show to dissect. There's just so much STUFF going on in any given episode (a pre-panel clip reel filled with season three's top moments went on for almost 15 minutes and STILL barely scratched the surface of what happened in those ten episodes), and there are so many major themes the series tries to engage with that discussing the show tends to take fans and critics down on tangential bunny trails as often as they discuss the meat of just what happened in the latest episode. Fortunately, moderator Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times was able to keep things mostly on track, getting the creators' and present cast members' thoughts both on thematic concerns like the show's engagement with questions of faith in modern America and more practical concerns like how it balances its fictional reality with the tremendously horrific stories that come out of real-world polygamist compounds.
All of that sounds very academic, but the panel was surprisingly loose, often thanks to Harry Dean Stanton, whose character, Roman, was killed on the show. Stanton would continually hijack questions to lament his death, expound on philosophical precepts like how humanity cannot comprehend the mysteries of the universe and to try only leads to bloodshed or just try to figure out what, exactly, he was being asked (he seemed hard of hearing). There was an occasional sense of exasperation from McNamara and the audience at Stanton's hijinks, but the rest of the cast and creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer seemed mostly amused, as if constantly thinking, "That's our Harry!" At one point as Stanton was rambling on about how we can only hold a mirror up to nature and how the noosphere collides with the biosphere (no, really), Scheffer made a mock grimace to the audience and said, "Now you see why we killed him off!" Weirdly, Stanton's ramblings (he also praised, at length, Chloe Sevigny's legs and Grace Zabriskie's eyes) didn't detract overall, instead offering a sense of anything can happen-ness that enlivened even the panel's more academic moments.
McNamara's a big fan of the show, and early in the session, her questions could take on a similarly rambling quality, as she tried to express everything she liked about the program, but she was mostly successful that everyone on the panel got to talk about their work on the series and how they view it. The mood from the assembled players was a collegial one. Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays first wife Barb, said that the cast eats lunch together every day and generally gets along, while Sevigny, who plays second wife Nikki, and Zabriskie, who plays grandmother Lois, said that the show hums along so smoothly, even though the shooting process leaves the actors exhausted, simply because there are no assholes on set. Usually, this sort of stuff feels like boilerplate fan relations from series, but the warm feelings between cast and crew were obvious even from the audience.
The production of the third season, which crammed two seasons' worth of plot points into 10 episodes (Olsen, in fact, admitted that the series' initial six-season plan has now completely been burned off as of the end of season three), took up the bulk of the discussion. In particular, the season's sixth episode, the widely praised (even by "Big Love" detractors) "Come, Ye Saints," was a focal point, with the cast sharing stories of taking their own road trip up through California during production, including Tripplehorn and Sevigny sharing a car, while the absent Ginnifer Goodwin and Amanda Seyfried also shared a car with their cats. All of this apparently culminated in a party unlike any a small-town El Torito had ever seen.
"We rocked an El Torito like it's never been rocked before," said series star Bill Paxton, crediting Sevigny for getting the party started, as it were.
The difference between "Big Love" road trips and road trips for other HBO series was noted as well.
"'Entourage' gets to go to Cannes, and we get to go to Sacramento," Sevigny said.
Olsen and Scheffer said that the theme they worked with in the third season was that of empire building, of people trying to create things that grow beyond themselves. They also said that the central question of the season was one of destruction.
"What do you do when the fundamental stated purpose of a family starts to implode?" Olsen said they asked, and pointed out that every character violated their compact with their family in one way or another in the course of the season.
Tripplehorn discussed the season's most controversial plot point (when Barb is excommunicated from the mainline LDS church – the series depicted a secret church ceremony in the course of this storyline), saying that she was able to link it back to her own childhood of being raised Catholic and to Barb's hatred of polygamy but love for her family.
"(A belief system) becomes just a part of your very being … even though as an adult you may not practice the rituals," she said. "I just think saying goodbye to a part of your past (like that) is sad."
Matt Ross, who plays the clumsily villainous Alby Grant, said he doesn't think of the character as particularly evil, even though fans often recoil from him.
"Alby can be cruel AND kind in the same scene. It's too facile to say he's a sociopath," Ross said.
The season's borderline overstuffed nature also hit the actors, who would often pepper Olsen and Scheffer with questions after table reads.
"Almost every table read, the actors would get together and be, like, ‘Really?'" said Sevigny, with a note of incredulity.
But that closeness between cast and crew allows for good collaboration, where the actors can go to Olsen and Scheffer with any questions they have about their characters or where the series is going and the creators seem to have enough figured out to be able to answer those queries. (Scheffer said the writers know roughly where the series will end, but the path to get there shifts radically with every season.) The creators also said that they initially shied away from depicting the characters' deep religious faith in the first season, not sure how that would be portrayed on TV, but they eventually embraced that aspect of the material with the encouragement of HBO.
"(Our characters) are living it. It's right there for us," Olsen said.
In the end, though, the panel was surprisingly funny, the actors all playing well off of each other, from when they playfully rolled their eyes every time Stanton started to complain about Roman's death to when Paxton snapped his fingers in mock disgust at the idea that Margene would no longer be the cute little baby doll she's been in the series so far. Unlike a lot of ambitious series, "Big Love" seems to draw its strength not from conflict in creative personnel but from how everyone involved seems to be on the same page regarding the series' vision.
-- A brief season four preview: Margene will mature, thanks to her QVC job. Bill will have two big, ongoing storylines. Lois will have a storyline that somehow relates to Wanda's exotic bird smuggling plot from early in season three. Nikki will spend much of the season dealing with her long-lost daughter and resurfaced ex-husband. Alby's repressed homosexuality will come into play even more. And though Roman is really, truly dead, his presence will continue to loom over the series, as long-buried secrets return to haunt the characters.
-- Discussion of how the series dealt with the real life polygamy scandals in Texas was fairly brief, but Olsen and Scheffer said that it did allow them to abandon the series' previously agnostic tone as to whether what happened at Juniper Creek was right or wrong and allowed them to let Bill do the same. "It's not enough to live what you think is a righteous life, if you're seeing this evil around you," Paxton said.
-- Olsen and Scheffer said that, occasionally, the burden of keeping so many plates spinning can exhaust the writers (in particular, they had trouble figuring out how to end the third season), but they're also surprised by how easily they can come up with new things to have the characters do. "This show has more depth and more life than we ever imagined," Olsen said.
-- Many questioners in the audience were surprised that the only writer on the series who was previously a Mormon was Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar winner for his "Milk" screenplay), who has since left the series. Olsen credits the series' accuracy to his love for three things. "I love research. … I love American history. And I love biting off big chunks of both."
-- When a questioner pointed out that Stanton had been in "Alien" and Paxton in its sequel "Aliens," Paxton was pleased that someone had made that connection. Then he talked about how much he loved the original "Alien." "Boy, I remember seeing that in Times Square. On acid," he said, bringing down the house.
You can read more from Todd at South Dakota Dark.