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T.V. on TV: Big Love, The 4400, and The Shield

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T.V. on TV: <em>Big Love</em>, <em>The 4400</em>, and <em>The Shield</em>

I’ll talk about Big Love in more detail starting June 11, when the House debuts a new recap series, “Big Love Tuesdays.” For now I’ll just say that in the first five episodes of the HBO drama’s second season, it has evolved from a damn good show to a nearly great one. In its first season, Big Love seemed reluctant to tell the story of a polygamous family without leaning on expository crutches; to make certain episodes happen, it occasionally lapsed into plot contrivance or needless melodrama. But in its sophomore outing, Big Love moves with the confidence of a series that has figured out what it wants to be and how to get there. As the House recap title indicates, HBO, in its infinite wisdom, has stranded the show on Monday, a night where even Six Feet Under couldn’t do much, ratings-wise, so I’ll sound the alarm now: Don’t miss it.

Big Love parses relationships between people in a family setup that few Americans have experienced, and makes it comprehensible and believable. Even if you’ve never had to deal with a third mother or a sister wife, the series illustrates the difficulty of navigating these relationships with subtle writing and even better acting (especially from Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin as the wives of Bill Paxton’s ambitious retailer, Bill Henrickson). It still rankles when the two younger wives call Tripplehorn’s Barb “boss lady”; but no other series could concieve a scene as original as the one where Goodwin’s Margie tells Barb that she understands her limits in her uneasily flirtatious relationship with Barb and Bill’s teenage son. Just as striking is the fact that Big Love really understands the sheer passion of fundamentalism—of giving in to something larger than yourself and dedicating yourself to that abstract dream. While the characters’ polygamous lifestyle puts them out-of-step with mainstream America, they speak unironically of following God’s calling and having visions and abstaining from alcohol or sex before marriage. Unlikely as it may sound, given the multiple spouses and the subtextual arguments in favor of gay marriage, America’s fundamentalist Christians have no better friend than Big Love, which argues that the passion they feel for God is as valid as any other emotion. At the same time, though, the series is not afraid to depict polygamy and fundamentalism’s discontents, represented most notably in its teenage characters, portrayed by Douglas Smith, Amanda Seyfried and Daveigh Chase. All cope with losing their faith in the culture that raised them, and fighting against a secular world that enfolds them every time they leave the house.

Big Love still leans too easily on quirkiness when it doesn’t know what else to do; its marginal characters are sketched too broadly, and the storylines originating in the old-time polygamist compound at Juniper Creek often seem shoehorned in to emphasize how damaging unchecked polygamy can be to women. But by and large, Big Love is a unique family soap that has found its second gear. If you bailed in the series’ early going because it seemed unsure of itself, now’s the time to come back.

The 4400, beginning its fourth season (or maybe its third season—the first season was a six-episode miniseries) June 17 at 9 p.m. on USA, is a great idea for a pulp SF TV series. Over the course of about 60 years, a bunch of people disappeared into the ether; then they unexpectedly returned all at once, with superpowers, and the government tried its best to keep tabs on all of them. The end of the first season (or miniseries, if you must) revealed that the returnees had been taken into the future by the last remnants of humanity and given superpowers to avert an impending, unspecified disaster that would send humanity to its ruin. Since most series of this type follow that initial setup with “AND THERE WERE ALIENS!”, the very fact that The 4400 seemed to be chasing some sort of larger narrative was exciting in and of itself.

And for a little while, that was enough. One of the most ingenious things about that initial mini-season was that all of the characters’ new abilities radiated out of them unpredictably, spreading goodness and light. It was goofy, feel-good science fiction, and the basic format—in which two government agents wandered the country, investigating the returnees and seeing how their powers manifested and affected the world—was a good one. The acting has always been spotty; Billy Campbell and Peter Coyote (who has since left the show) are the only regulars who seem to know how goofy the whole thing is); but one-off nature of the episodes is conducive to hiring solid guest stars to play the various returnees. In the early stretch, The 4400 wasn’t great, but it was diverting summer TV. Unfortunately, the show almost immediately added layers of ever-duller mythology (the people in the future were subdivided into various sects and splinter cells) and often focused on its least appealing aspects (a bunch of angst-y teenagers have gotten way too much screen time).

Now, in the series’ fourth season debut, the characters are scattered to the various corners of the Earth (leading man Joel Gretsch is still searching for a woman he loved whom he originally met in an alternate reality) and working through stories that are less gooey and much darker than we’ve seen up to now (the premiere focuses on a kid who manages to take over the city of Seattle, thanks to a power manifested through sheer force of personality). What’s more, the series has introduced a drug called Promicin that lets people gamble on acquiring 4400-style powers (though 50% who take the drug die—gotta love those odds). This development allows the writers to develop obvious drug addiction metaphors, but it also robs the returnees of their specialness. I’m sure I’ll stick with The 4400 to the end (I’m a sucker for this sort of thing), but sci-fi mystery has been done so much better on Battlestar Galactica, Lost and Heroes that it’s really not worth picking up this series now.

The last six episodes of The Shield’s sixth season were a study in ever-ratcheting tension. Strike team leader Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) tried find out who had killed former strike team member Lem (Kenny Johnson, whom the show missed ever-so-slightly), only to learn that the culprit was his right-hand man, Shane (an electrifying Walton Goggins, turning in a weekly Emmy reel). Their long-delayed confrontation, which occurred in the denouement of the last episode, wasn’t just one of the best scenes in the show’s run, it managed to transform The Shield’s subtext-less bullheadedness into something approaching real emotional bonding. The two left the scene as something approaching sworn enemies; then the show entered tap-dancing mode, putting off the inevitable Shane-Vic showdown that will surely drive Season Seven, which the creators say will be its last.

Much has been written comparing this season of The Shield and the similar season of The Sopranos. To a large degree, that’s because both started at roughly the same time in April and because both shows returned this year with the back halves of seasons that aired in the spring of 2006. But they have other similarities: both feature borderline-sociopath protagonists who cross that border often; both were significant series for the FX and HBO networks, and for basic and pay cable respectively. But where The Sopranos has seemed intent on stripping away any sympathy viewers might have felt for Tony Soprano, insisting on his monstrousness while trying to leave their basic empathy for him intact, The Shield is stuck with Vic for another season, so it has to do the dance it’s done for its entire run. Sure, Vic is bad, the show says, but he’s not as bad as some other guys out there.

What made the first six episodes of the season so note perfect was that they largely abandoned this well-worn trope and replaced it with the idea that Vic had become utterly single-minded, so intent on finding Lem’s killer and exacting revenge that he tortured men brutally and bent every rule he could. But when he found out Shane was behind the murder, the writers couldn’t very well have Vic take down Shane immediately, even if it might have been prudent for Vic to do so. Now, the show is faced with a stretch of episodes where we have a rough idea of what must happen (Shane and Vic take each other down, and the series end with one or both of them dead or in jail). But we’re still waiting on the how.

To that end, the final four episodes of Season Six brought in Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) as a woman representing the Armenians the strike team ripped off in Season Two (phew) who became an ally of Shane and sent Vic off looking for any sort of ally he could find. Shane had essentially set up a mutually assured destruction situation: if he went down, he’d use his information on the strike team’s misdeeds to bring down Vic. It seems as though Season Seven will be about both of these players doing what they can to maneuver around this conundrum, but the final four episodes of Season Six seemed dedicated less to meaningfully advancing this storyline than simply setting it up (though the sheer number of callbacks to events throughout the series in seasons five and six has been fairly breathtaking). All of the characters are unsubtly written, and the show shifts them around like chess pieces, but they’re played with such gusto and written with such brute force that you barely notice. The final four hours of season six had some fine action sequences (Vic hanging through a car window to beat on the driver), but it also had too much throat-clearing, and even the strongest moments didn’t rise to the level of the season’s first half.

But now that the pieces are in place, the final stretch holds promise. Unlike Sopranos creator David Chase, who often seems suspicious of anything not resembling an anticlimax, Shield creator Shawn Ryan is a devotee of the big finish, and Season Six picked up a lot of threads left dangling by previous seasons (including the rape of Benito Martinez’s Aceveda, which seemed like a development that would be left unresolved). The Shield isn’t great TV, but it delivers spectacular payoffs.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.