This series began as a quirky follow up to The Sopranos, mirroring all of the whackings and wiseguys with baptisms and believers. Bill Henrickson, played with wooden morality by Bill Paxton, confronts his complicated life with equal parts faith and ambition. In his world those words are one and the same – and that might be the real message of this series, examining the way unerring faith in the afterlife is woven into more earthly concerns. He has three wives: Barb, the first wife and matriarch, holding the family together with businesslike determination, haunted though she is with doubts about the polygamist lifestyle; Nikki, the cult refugee whose devout faith is balanced by her petty prejudices and jealousies; and Margie, the youngest and most recent wife, cute, innocent and flighty. The three actresses form the foundation of the series, imbuing these characters with unexpected depth and complexity. They carry the show through some of the weaker writing of the later seasons – almost.

The first few seasons derive much of their dramatic tension from escalating entanglements with the local polygamist compound, led by the prophet Harry Dean Stanton, whose presence lends his every scene an eerie, unstable authenticity. Some of these altercations do seem forced, drama for the sake of drama: twists and turns happen so often that the element of surprise soon dissipates, and it seems like every few episodes we have to see a shooting or a car chase just to keep things “interesting.” And therein lies the problem: this unique setting and talented cast is interesting enough, and even the modest dramas of their family life provide engaging narrative possibilities. When one of the kids (I’ve lost track of how many kids are in this family, but the sum total is well above the Brady Bunch) unexpectedly brings home a friend for dinner, there is a tense moment for the family as their status is illegal and therefore closeted. But how can they possibly keep their complex relationships confidential? What is the emotional toll? These are the questions that the series confronts in the first few seasons.

Then the dramatic elements begin to pile up, so much so that these characters aren’t permitted to breathe without the scene turning into a string laden moment of labored tension. The breezy pace of the earlier episodes is supplanted with the shifty succession of a soap opera, moving from scene to scene as characters strategize endlessly through a spinning wheel of scandals. Season Three also tries to up the creepy factor with some new villains, the Greenes, leaders even fringier Mormon sect, and there’s a particularly convoluted sequence involving a kidnapping and a rare church document that is as implausible as it is tedious. The performances are still strong, and I enjoyed the road trip episode in which several secrets are cleverly disclosed, but otherwise the quirky energy of the first season is nearly gone.

Season Four changes the style even more dramatically, emphasis on dramatically. Bill has purchased an Indian casino to go along with his chain of hardware stores, then decides that he has enough spare time to run for senate. Not that any of this affects Paxton’s performance, perpetually strained and distressed as it is; his one note Mormon martyr act was sort of clever in the earlier seasons, when the pressure of juggling three insatiable wives loomed as the sort of burden even Joseph Smith couldn’t have managed without pharmaceutical assistance. But as the dramatic layers pile on, his unflappable faith becomes tiresome and – worst of all – uninteresting. The wives don’t fare much better, with only Chloe Sevigny’s Nikki emerging as a consistently engaging character through all of the weepy, soapy narrative turns. Sissy Spacek appears as a lobbyist in a confusing role with all sorts of nonsensical twists that comes off more like a Scooby Doo villain than a believable character. And the interactions with the compound become more schizophrenic as well, so that over time we aren’t surprised to find characters veering between murderous opposition and calculating alliance, even in the same episode. It all reminds me of the latter days of Vince Russo’s WCW, when Elizabeth would hit Macho Man with a chair only to later reveal that it was all a ruse to get the title from Ric Flair, who meanwhile has been in a mental institution pretending to be crazy in his ongoing feud with Sting. If perhaps the show is trying to draw a parallel between fringe Mormonism and late 90’s wrestling, then the mission was accomplished. But as a television drama, it’s nearly unwatchable.

By the time we get to Season Five, the show has gotten so far off track that its attempts to return to elements of family drama are completely ineffectual. There’s an interesting dual plot line in which we discover that Margie was only sixteen when she married Bill and that looming criminal investigation coincides with an affair between Nikki’s fifteen year old daughter and her math tutor. This is the sort of complicated moral dynamic that feels most vital to the characters and the environment. At its best, this show delves fearlessly into all of the moral contradictions inherent in trying to raise children in a polygamist family, in trying to live an honorable public life as outlaws. We like them, we want to root for them. But all of this is lost under the convoluted plotlines and overwrought dramas, so that nothing really registers.

In the end, (SPOILER) Bill is shot dead by a vengeful neighbor, who of course has never shown any previous tendency for violence nor even appeared as much more than a minor character. Hulk Hogan gets pinned by a jobber – why? Because it’s WCW, it’s a swerve. And of course these shows have to end with the morally ambiguous main character getting shot, it’s just the way it’s done. Perhaps it would have been more fitting for that classic polygamist sitcom Three’s Company to end an overhead shot of a fallen John Ritter, bleeding out to the strains of a Badfinger song. Or we might imagine Fonzie shot dead, perhaps to the accompaniment of an appropriately poignant Sha-Na-Na ballad. It’s meaningful, man. But by the end of Big Love, the viewer doesn’t really care.

The first two seasons are highly recommended, if only for the memorable performances of the wives and Stanton’s creepy prophet Roman Grant. But after that, it gets messy and soapy. It’s as if this show didn’t really understand how interesting and rich its original premise really was, jumping instead through all sorts of unnecessary dramatic hoops to no discernible effect other than to tire the viewer. Recognize and trust in the strengths of your characters, don’t overburden them with unbelievable scenarios. Tony Sopranos didn’t need to run for senate any more than Elizabeth needed to turn on Macho Man. And did Captain Kangaroo really need to be shot dead at the end of his run? Yes, yes he did, but that’s an exception.