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Love is All Around Us: "Big Love" Creators and Stars Talk Season Three

HBO's family drama-with-a-twist Big Love returns this Sunday for a third season positively overflowing with long-buried secrets. (You can read my advance review of the first three episodes of Season Three here.)

Speaking at last week's Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and stars Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin had a lot to say about Season Three, the hiatus following the writers strike, and the P-word: polygamy.

Several returning series were greatly impacting by the timing and length of the writers strike, which lasted 100 days beginning in November 2007. Big Love, which was gearing up for its third season on HBO was one such series. Returning to work after the strike ended, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer decided to start fresh and write new scripts rather than use the several that had been broken before the strike.

"It's always good to have more time and more time and more time to digest story and to reconsider choices made," said Scheffer. "It makes the show stronger, deeper, better to have a couple of goes at initial assumptions. And so it was a blessing in that way, a mixed blessing because we were late coming on back to our fans, but I think that that little interim period where we weren't writing, when we were just sort of protesting and showering and such, that we could have this time to breathe into the characters and the stories even more than we would have if we had just gone on our straight route."

Arriving back on HBO after a year and a half off the air, Big Love definitely brings some added tension and drama with its third season and has the characters going through some very big changes, and not for the first time.

Bill Paxton, who plays family patriarch Bill Henrickson, says that his perception of his character has changed over the course of the series' three seasons.

"Oh, absolutely, it's changed," said Paxton. "I've grown to admire the character I play greatly. He's a man after my own heart in terms of what he's taken on to try to keep this family together and to grow his family. And I find that it's been a real challenge playing the part, but it's been very rewarding."

Paxton admits that initially the series' trappings of polygamy were a little unsettling, as does Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays Bill's third wife Margene. "I think all of us, of course, assumed going into it that in some way we would be [promoting] polygamy, and polygamy is [just] the setting," said Goodwin. "This is a character-driven story. It's about a love that works, and I think once we all got past what everyone has now phrased as the 'ick factor,' and once we all--I think within the first season--came to understand as the reasons why each character came into this lifestyle, the polygamy sort of became, not an insignificant detail because it's clearly forever our characters' obstacle in how we live in the outside world, but... just the dynamics of a family love that none of us have ever experienced."

Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays Bill's first wife, the oft-put-upon Barb, said that her initial concerns about the project weren't related to polygamy, per se, but about making the characters as deep and complex as possible.

"It was how to make it believable and more rich because when I was originally approached about this show about a polygamist family called Big Love, I thought it was a comedy," admitted Tripplehorn. "And then, as I read it, I couldn't believe the depth, and when I originally came to it, it was just how to make believable and how do I relate to this. And now, you know, having finished Season Three, it's just really nuanced and richer. I mean, I still have questions concerning Barbara and why she stays or why she doesn't, why she-- Well, there's so many things I can't say because I don't want to give it away. But it's not about polygamy anymore."

"She's kind of like a whirling dervish," said Chloë Sevigny of her character, the manipulative Nikki. "She's in constant turmoil, definitely, and she's the character that's kind of wrenched most by this arrangement in a funny kind of way and split by the two worlds that she has to exist in between her married, family life and her family-family life. And the conflict there has always been strong from the beginning and before the beginning of the series, and it continues to deepen in ways that are really exciting."

One of the reasons that the show continues to mine its initial premise is through its creation of several worlds: that of Roman and Alby and the compound, the public face that the Henrickson clan puts on to the rest of society, the sphere of domesticity that they create, and within that the world of the sister wives, an unpredictable and often shifting sea of alliances. It's what Olsen refers to as "wives' world," and it often provides one of the greatest sources of tension for the series.

"Whether it's happy and well-adjusted or in conflict, [the wives] have become a unit that's very forceful, and the scenes with the three women and Bill tend to be scenes where your jaw drops, when you see the actors interrelating and how quickly they fall into being this unit," said Scheffer. "It's bizarre... So when we're working and they just fall into being this family, it's really awesome."

"There's also a very special province of this show that we kind of call 'wives' world,' and it exists below Bill's radar, when he's not around, and it's the three of them together," agreed Olsen. "I think it's a very special rich dynamic that we tried to tap even deeper this year and certainly give more air time to. Because within wives' world, you can have these rich, rich encounters between these three that goes from two seconds into it, 'Nicki, will you please shut up,' and she means it, to an embrace ten seconds later. It's a rich tapestry of relationship and affection and resentment that we call family."

Still, despite the deepness of the characters and a shortened run (Season Three will only run ten episodes), it's not an easy series to produce. "It's gruelling to do ten episodes," said Scheffer. "It's grueling to do twelve even more, and we consider ourselves lucky that we're not doing 22 because I think we'd all be dead."

"I check into a sanitarium at the end of each season for about a month," joked Paxton. "Then I'm ready to go back to work."

Sevigny agrees. "The consistency of the HBO schedule sometimes can make it hard for us to find other projects because we're not sure when we'll be available," she said. "The timing has been quite difficult."

Still one can't argue that the series has captured the imagination of its fiercely loyal audience. "The show, it's very contemporary," mused Paxton. "In terms of HBO, it's a groundbreaking show. Why I got involved in this was the writing and the concept were original, and I'd never seen this show [before]. It's not another forensic show. It's not another hospital show. It's not another cop/detective drama. It really is a unique, groundbreaking show. It has a lot to do with tolerance and humanity and compassion, but there's no message to be hit over the head here. They've made it like a really good souffle; you can kind of really savor these characters. It's been probably the greatest role I've ever gotten to play. I've never done an ongoing show. We have the most amazing cast. It's been really exciting."

So what can we expect for Season Three? "This year we got a lot of new actors who've come to join us," hinted Paxton. "We're going to kind of let them be surprises as they come along... , Oh, boy, there's a lot of stuff coming that goes back and fills in some of [Bill's] story. A lost boy shows up and I have to deal with this kid. He turns out to be a brother of mine. I'm not giving too much away here. You see Bill looking around the environment of this kid, and he's looking back through this kid to where he came from, too. I think that Mark and Will and the writers have found, really, a more clever way to shade in the backstory."

"You'll be surprised at what characters have hidden from their family, from themselves," said Scheffer. "With this kind of show where it's really character-based and really complicated emotionally, there are deep wells of emotions and secrets and feelings that you just begin to discover. The characters discover them. The writers discover them. So, it's all of sudden like, let's go 150 percent and go further than anyone ever thought we should possibly go and we'll see what happens because we know there's going to be a well to go."

Just don't expect any flashbacks as the writers delve head-first into the characters' backstories.

"I think we decided that a flashback was not really in the vocabulary of the show we were making," said Scheffer of their decision not to do flashbacks (other than in those three Season Two promotional vignettes), "so there was kind of like a desire maybe to dramatize that period in the family's life. We felt we had to do it in the present and dramatize the past in the present."

"We've been in no rush to nail some of that backstory, to tell you the truth," agreed Olsen. "I mean, we knew, broadly speaking, that Bill and Barb had that first marriage and then Barb got sick, and then somehow through that process when Nicky came to stay with them, something happened and Barb acquiesced and Bill moved forward, and the first step was made in a polygamous marriage. The finer, finer dramatic points: Was Barb shoved into this? Did she lead the cause? Was Bill repentant? Did he feel guilty? They're emotional pieces which can be, over time, quite explosive. We've really kind of taken time to feel our way through."

Paxton agrees: "I don't even think my character knows what he is capable of, and because of his background, he could be capable of anything. After three seasons of acting in this series, to me it feels like the root system of this tree are still spreading out. I feel like there's a lot of places we've got to go yet and there is a lot of backstory to be explored, but I like the way they're doing it. Flashbacks, I think, are kind of a cheap device and kind of a cliché device at this point in the filmmaking game."

But even with the dramatic stakes being risen, Big Love is still at its heart about family. "Every story has to go back into it being about marriage [and family]," said Scheffer. "We won't do something that's lazy and kind of plot-driven if it doesn't come back and hit the theme of marriage and family. We have very strong guidelines on what we do. So even like the kind of bigger stories about Roman and about the kind of darker side of polygamy and the morality of polygamy, all have to also feed back into our family or characters or we won't touch them. We want to always have the theme alive. There's no glib stories about polygamy. There's no easy answers about it. We're always trying to dig into that material deep, as well."

Season Three of Big Love begins Sunday night at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Anonymous said…
I have heard nothing but great things about Season Three and I am dying to see it! I think that only having ten or twelve episodes a season has really helped the show to maintain its complex, rich storylines and to explore its characters in a way that network shows really can't. I would rather have ten incredible episodes of a show than twenty-two mediocre ones.

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