Against super-villiany

Everyone here knows how much I love and respect Big Love. I think it's great example of what happens when writers bust their ass and do the hard work of constructing actual characters, as opposed to flat cat-outs which merely push the plot. Which is why, I sorta, kinda, hated the most recent episode. I should start by saying that I'm prejudice. I think I'm the only person on the planet who thinks the following: Chloe Sevigny's character, especially this season, is the lynch-pin in the show, the mark of dissension and divided loyalties in the Hendrickson house, and a breathing bridge to the past. I think it's the most important slot on Big Love. Unfortunately it's also the weakest.

It's very hard to write that, mostly because most of us who tell stories will be lucky if we ever come close to doing anything as well as Big Love has been done thus far. But I believe it to be true. I can't tell whether I object to Sevigny's acting or to the way her character is written or both. This isn't a matter of whether she's likeable or not. Albee isn't likeable. Roman is likeable. The Wire's Bill Rawls is disgusting, but is also one of the most compelling supporting characters I've seen in recent times. Sevigny plays Nikki Grant mostly in one note--a kind of mix between paranoia, anxiousness and irrational anger. You can argue that that's exactly the sort of person she'd be. I don't agree, but that really isn't the point. Watching any actor play the same note over and over is tiring. There has to be more there.

Which is fine. That's my opinion. I've never met anyone else who's shared it. But watching Nikki Grant transform into a super-agent, watching her mother transform into a criminal mastermind capable of outwitting people who's job it is to catch criminals is too much. I don't buy that Bill would have prevailed against Roman. Bill is a smart, savvy dude--but not nearly as smart and savvy as he thinks he is. His tragic flaw is hubris. I thought that scene where he called Roman to gloat was pitch-perfect. What I don't buy is that Bill would lose, because the prosecutor would allow a temp access to sensitive documents, while he's steadily losing witnesses. What I don't buy is that Adaleene--the wife of a man on trial--could bypass security with a stack of towels. What I don't buy is that Nikki is lucky enough to be in the right places at all the right times and overhear the right info, which she can dutifully pass on to her Mom.

We live in an age of naturalism. Our heroes are not good people, who must always be undone by even worse people. I don't have a problem with that, so much as I have a problem with not doing the work to make the end-point believable. I often read people praising a show because it's "dark." But darkness is not, in and of itself, a virtue. Cynicism and earnestness are equally the enemies of art. Bringing down a flawed hero takes time, and shouldn't be done by people so evil that you can almost hear them cackling, or by housewives mystically transformed into super-agents.

Watching this episode of Big Love, I was reminded of the last season of The Wire when the need to show how institutions corrupt everything, how in the end the good guys always get jobbed, just overwhelmed the show, and for the first time, gave us uncomplicated, unmitigated, omnipotent evil. We haven't gotten there yet with Big Love. I'm pretty sure that none of this ends well. I just want folks to take their time in getting us there.