Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Big Love: A Lesson in Writing

Warning: This post contains spoilers about the series finale of the HBO show Big Love. If you have not watched it and want to, don't read anymore.

A few years ago, I fell in love with a series called Big Love. I got the first season on DVD right after it came out and I was hooked. It is a show that has challenged me, surprised me, and compelled me to take interest in lives so different from my own.

Big Love is about family, but also faith. A faith that is very confusing and foreign to me. I was raised in a Quaker church and a Christian church, but am now an atheist, so Mormonism is a very different perspective from my own. The show also explored polygamy and made me question my own thoughts about relationships. At the center of the show was the amazing core characters: Bill, Barb, Nicki, and Margene. These four actors disappeared into these characters and made you truly care about this family that had many, many faults.

The first three seasons are absolutely some of the best television out there. They are well-written, developed, and acted. Sadly, the final two season wavered a bit and stumbled in some key places. The show took some big risks and some paid off and others did not. The show remained entertaining and even thought-provoking, but the true heart of the show seemed to be in limbo.

If I really love a show, I am willing to put my trust in the creators and writers and hope that eventually they will relieve my doubts. I gave Big Love a lot of trust this final season, because I was questioning almost all of the storylines they were doing, but I kept hoping. As I watched the series finale I was let down and left asking, what the hell were they thinking?

In the final season the family was completely falling apart and crashing down. It seemed there was no hope in sight and that things were going to end in the destruction of the core family. In the final episode, things were still hanging by a thread and Bill was facing jail time because his third wife was actually only 16 when they married. This was something she had kept from the whole family (this was never hinted at or brought up until episode three or four of the final season, which is not good writing). As the episode began to wrap up, you saw a glimmer of hope that people might be coming back together, but then, like a badly written story from a college creative writing student, a crazed neighbor appeared out of nowhere and shot and killed Bill. The show then skipped ahead eleven months to show that the wives stuck together and appeared closer than ever before.

I wish I was making this up. This is writing 101: You don't just pull out a gun and shoot your main character with no warning or setup. If they wanted Bill to die, there were lots more people on the show that should have killed him. Instead, it was a small secondary character that we don't really know much about. Yes, we know he lost his job and has been depressed and his wife left him, but we, as the audience, don't know him well enough to understand why he would come up to Bill and kill him in the street.

Due to my great confusion, I decided to take a listen to Fresh Air's interview with the creators of the series, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, which aired yesterday. First of all, I love Fresh Air and Terry Gross asks the best questions and she didn't let me down. You could tell right away that Terry Gross also had some confusions about the sudden killing of Bill. She focused many of her questions about that decision. I thought the interview would be enlightening and might give me some peace about the series. Instead, it made me more angry.

Olsen and Scheffer had no good responses and actually had a very different take on the series as a whole than most of the viewing audience. They seemed to not understand their own show as well as those of us who have watched it for the last five seasons. They even admitted that their views seem at odd with the viewers, which somehow surprised them.

They claimed their goal was always to show how strong the family was and how it always endured. This message, however, gets a little messed up, because when is enough, enough? By the end of the five years, it seems like it is almost more harmful for these characters to stay together than to separate. As viewers, we aren't quite convinced that these people belong together or that this marriage, faith, and family work. Bill was still part of a system that controls women, which Terry Gross did a nice job of pointing out. It seems that Olsen and Scheffer saw their show as a testament to the surivival of a marriage, but survival based on the death of the figurehead of the family seems a little off to me. Bill had to die to bring the family back together? I don't know if that's very strong storytelling.

As the interview continued, it seemed to be clear that they planned the show and some of the big revelations rather quickly and without full consideration of the characters and overall storyline of the series. As a writer, this saddens me. I'd love to write a series for HBO and feel I could have at least written a better finale for this show, which I have loved for five seasons, than they did.

This got me thinking about writers and their views on their own material. Last night, at my Nerve Poetry Workshop meeting, I was talking to my friend Brian about this very topic. I am of the firm belief that the author isn't necessarily the key or the best judge of their material. Once I release a poem to the world, I can't control what others will see in it. I've often had someone find amazing connections that I didn't see when I wrote it. Sometimes I think it comes from my own intuition, but sometimes it is from the reader only. We were also talking about self-publishing and I think one of the dangers of that is that you don't have a strong outside editor to give you clear advice and guidance on your work. Big Love might have benefited from some outside guidance.

Writing a series is probably one of the most challenging writing projects. You have these characters that must move and change, but your audience must also understand the choices and decisions they make. In some ways, Big Love was fantastic at doing this. While Nicki did become a bit more annoying in the final season, I did fully understand her development as a character. However, the overall idea of sticking with a marriage was truly tested by the absolutely horrific stuff this family was put through in five seasons. In the final season, they were really at odds with each other and all seemed to be questioning the decisions they had made.

In the end, I was saddened that such a great show had pulled such a cheap shot. We all make mistakes as writers, and just sometimes our audience knows best. I will miss my Big Love family and will now try to forget the finale ever happened.

-Stephen (Loved Big)


  1. Oh, now don't fret. You know HBO has something else in mind, just as saucy, lined up for next season. You fall in love again.

  2. Oh, I'm pissed.