Big Love: Shark-Jumping in Utah

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HBO / Everett

Bill Paxton in Big Love

TIME's TV critic, the incomparable James Poniewozik, has been on vacation and didn't review the last two episodes of Big Love, so I've been entrusted with analyzing what's been happening lately on the HBO series about the fundamentalist Mormon with his very extended family. You should have seen the Feb. 7 and 14 hours before reading this. Jim will return to blog on tonight's episode.

A TV show is said to have jumped the shark when, having reached its peak, it tries something desperate or hackneyed to prolong its popularity. Examples of such gimmicks include weddings, births, replacing an actor in a role and adding a "new kid in town." Even the best series can fall into one or more of these traps. And one of them, Big Love, leaps right in.

I love Big Love. I love how it extended the standard HBO series premise — "They're a family... of mobsters, of Roman emperors, of vampires... who fight and stick together like any other family" — into the social and political saga of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), an ordinary guy in suburban Salt Lake City who happens to have three wives and a bunch of nutter relatives out in the woods. The show works simultaneously as family-values-affirming drama and deadpan surrealist farce: Father Knows Best meets Twin Peaks. And its creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Sheffer, seem to keep those shark-jumping events as a checklist of things-to-do.

Last year they concocted a wedding (of Bill to Ana the Slavic waitress; it lasted two days). This season they replaced a cast member (Bella Thorne took over from Jolean Wejbe, who had played Tina, Bill and first wife Barb's youngest child Tancy) and brought a new kid into town (Cara Lynn, the long-lost daughter of Bill's second wife Nicki). Some of these plot tweaks can be waved away because Big Love has a narrative more hurtling and congested than any series I know; it makes Mad Men's plotting seem staid by comparison ... But Olsen and Sheffer must also think that testing the credulity of the storyline, is a smart way to keep their viewers debating, guessing and glued.

Then, in a single episode a few weeks ago, Big Love managed to jump more sharks than Evel Knievel in a sequel to Jaws. The whole Henrickson family went nuts, even by their own elastic gauges of plausibility. Eldest daughter Sarah more or less abducted and adopted a junkie Indian mother whom Barb had knocked over with her car on the reservation. On a trip with Bill to Washington, D.C., Nicki was found packing a pistol in a government building. Wife No. 3, Margene, gave her sort-of-stepson Ben a big smooch, recorded live on the home-shopping TV show she fronts. Out on Juniper Creek, the polygamous compound where Bill and Nicki were raised, Nicki's brother Alby, the sect's new leader, entered into a dangerous liaison with Dale, the man charged with examining the books of the UEB, the Juniper Creek business arm. And Bill pursued his latest messianic or suicidal mission: risking exposure as a polygamist, and the ruination of his family, by campaigning for a State Senate seat.

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