The opening five minutes or so of the fourth season premiere of "Big Love" encompass so thoroughly everything I like about the show that it's kind of a disappointment that the rest of the episode has so much messiness to it. Granted, "Big Love" almost always has messy premieres and finales, as the show attempts to either set a million plot threads in motion or tie all of them off neatly enough to proceed into yet another hiatus. The show is almost always better in its middle episodes (as in next week's sterling second episode of this season), when the series takes the time to breathe and give its characters room to just be themselves and interact. Episodes like this one, where the show makes an attempt to incorporate every single one of its far-flung characters, can end up feeling exhausting, no matter how well-executed they are.

[Full recap of Sunday's (Jan. 10) "Big Love" premiere after the break...]

"Big Love," to me, is about communities and individuals, particularly the ways that individuals relate to the religious communities they're either a part of or coming in contact with. It's also the best show in the history of American television about the importance of fundamentalist religion in so many American lives. (Granted, the pool for this title is not especially deep.) Those who complain about how the show doesn't adequately show why the characters continue in this plural marriage setup, why the women of the show are so willing to cede control of their lives to a patriarchy, are rather missing the point. Or, actually, they're pointing out the show's reason to exist from a vastly different point of view. "Big Love" is decidedly agnostic about whether this way of life is a good thing for its central characters, particularly its women. It's smart enough to realize all of the ways polygamy stunts the growth of Barb, Nicki and Margene, but it's also smart enough to realize that the Henrickson suburban compound is seductive in its own way, as are all religious sects. The only thing any one of us wants is to belong somewhere, and in this compound, the Henricksons belong in two different ways - that of being a family and that of belonging to a creed that ostensibly brings them closer to God.

One could make something of a good argument that the true protagonist of "Big Love" is God, that, like the Island on "Lost," the series is all about a number of characters held in thrall to the demands of a force they can't understand or comprehend but know they must obey. Could someone break away from this life? Almost certainly, but they'd invariably end up haunted, stuck in a new world they can't quite comprehend because their old world constructed such a useful alternate reality. To that end, scenes like the ones with Lois are vaguely necessary to the show's central conceit (even though these scenes are often the most problematic ones on the show). Lois is the one character who has rather broken with the compound at this point, but she's living a lonely life, surrounded by exotic birds in a tiny apartment. She keeps her door locked against her ex-husband, but it's easy to get the sense that she's keeping so much more than just him out.

 

But if God is one of the primary forces motivating everyone in "Big Love," another is the world we're all a part of, the world we live in and watch "Big Love" from, the world where the thought of having a patriarchal, polygamist marriage seems unthinkable. Just as everyone on the show is trying to think of ways to do what God wants them to do, they're also trying to figure out just how much of the outside world they can let in, just how much will be permissible without losing what makes them special and unique. Independence and individualism are the sorts of things we profess to appreciate as Americans and the sorts of things Bill Henrickson purports to desire. But every time one of the wives ventures out into the world at large, it takes them farther and farther away from Bill. If there's an overarching story on "Big Love," it's the story of how Bill's attempts to have it all - a religious commitment and a comfortable suburban life - is almost certainly doomed to leave everyone in his life vaguely dissatisfied.

 

There's a lot going on in "Free at Last," but much of it is a little too broadly cartoonish. Take, for example, the frozen body of Roman Grant, which is trucked around much of rural Utah like the episode has dropped in to "Weekend at Bernie's." It's certainly necessary that the show find a way to show how Roman's death has affected everyone in his circle, and the moment when Nicki (the always, always remarkable Chloe Sevigny, who was robbed of an Emmy - to say nothing of a nomination - for last season) has a breakdown in the car over everything that's happened is raw and powerful, even as it's in the middle of a scene full of bumbling comedy. But if the Juniper Creek stuff too often feels, tonally, like it's been dropped in from a pale imitation of a David Lynch film, then the stuff with Roman's body really feels like that, even as the actors are giving it their all. Anne Dudek and Matt Ross driving around with an icicle corpse to the strains of Dolly Parton while Ross talks about how the corpse is giving him a mean look works better than it has any right to, honestly, but that's almost entirely because of Dudek and Ross. (And Ross is really terrific in this episode overall, especially as he confronts the fact that his new, male lover is also - surprise! - the trustee appointed to take care of the Juniper Creek situation.)

 

There's also a curious sense of the show trying to overstate things occasionally in this episode. "Big Love" has never been as subtle as, say, "The Wire," but it usually doesn't come right out and have its characters say exactly what the thematic subtext is, like Barb does when she tells Margene that she's flowering and says she doesn't quite know where to go from here. Similarly, having Jerry tell Bill that the tribe had hoped he'd be the friendly face of polygamy felt like the sort of thing no one would ever actually say. "Big Love" is usually better about keeping its subtext from drifting up into the text, but there was a sense in this episode that creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer (who also wrote the episode) wanted to make sure all of the season's big ideas were right there for all to see, even if this added up to something a little less than subtle.

 

Now, "Big Love" is one of the TV shows I most love writing about in any given TV season, mostly because the things that make it good and the things that don't always work are both so fascinating. I could easily go on for 4,000 words about it every week. (It also helps that the show has so many plotlines that even if I did go on for 4,000 words, I might not touch on all of them.) In the interests of time (yours and mine), I'm not going to do that tonight, but I think it's worth returning to those opening five minutes, mostly set inside of Bill's new church in what appears to be an abandoned storefront. The world outside decays, but inside, a new, vibrant thing is being born. Even if these people are all drifting, in some ways, from the community they're a part of, they still have this moment, the sense that they belong here and with these people. Whether or not you buy that's enough to sell a part of yourself, to trade in who you might become in favor of trying to keep others in your life happy, is largely up to you. It works for me because even as I see all of the ways this life sells Bill and Margie and Barb and Nicki short, it's undeniable to see the way they glory in the idea of being together, of having this life and this community where they can belong, be a part of something greater than themselves.

 

 

Some other thoughts:

 

*** Kenny Rogers! I hope he's a guest star later on.

 

***And even as the series is managing to keep all of these plates spinning (as well as introducing a new one in the person of Nicki's ex, J.J.), there's one pretty big one that hasn't stepped in in the form of Bill's brother, Joey, who killed Roman and appears to be MIA.

 

*** The two teenagers - Ben and Sarah - are one of my favorite things about the show. Both got very little to do (though next week is a stand-out episode for Sarah), but I hope the show rectifies that, particularly with Ben, who was one of the very best things about season two.

 

*** Another thing to keep an eye on: Season one was pretty much Bill's story. Season two was Barb's story. Season three was Nicki's story. Now, it seems, we're finally going to learn more about what makes Margie tick.

 

*** "Ben's band played! They were great!" "Don't sugarcoat it." That sounds like MY dad.

 

*** It's worth pointing out that next week's episode has virtually none of the problems that this one does and is, indeed, one of the best the show has ever done. I'll just chalk this week's issues up to opening jitters.

 

*** Thoughts on the new opening credits sequence? I'm mixed. The opening and closing images sum up this show about as well as anything the series has ever attempted, and I think the song is a better thematic fit for these later seasons than "God Only Knows," but the middle images sometimes feel a little tacky.