Skip to main content

'Big Love's Creators Deconstruct The Show's Finale

Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, who wrote and produced the HBO drama, explain the show's surprise ending -- and why it's going to be hard for them to let their fictive polygamous family go after five seasons.


Other segments from the episode on March 21, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 21, 2011: Interview with Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer; Review of Nick Lowe's album "Labour of Lust."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Big Love's Creators Deconstruct The Show's Finale


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The HBO series "Big Love" featured its final episode last night. I was kind of
shocked by the ending. We're going to talk with the creators of the series,
Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, about why it ended the way it did and what it's
like to bring a series to a close after five seasons.

Here's the spoiler alert: We're going to be giving away what happens at the
end. So if you haven't yet seen the finale of "Big Love," but you plan to,
don't listen to our interview today. It will be waiting for you on our website,

"Big Love" revolved around a polygamist family, Bill Henrickson and his three
wives, Barb, Nickie and Margene. Bill grew up on a fundamentalist compound that
practiced polygamy. Although he left the compound at age 14, he continued to
believe in polygamy and live with his three wives and three adjoining homes in
a suburb of Salt Lake.

He co-owned a big-box store called Home Plus, and in season four, he got
elected to the state Senate. At the end of that season, he came out as
polygamist. The consequences of coming out reverberated during season five. He
was facing 20 years in prison for statutory rape because his third wife,
Margene, neglected to tell him she was 16 when they married. And he was losing
his store.

Home life was very tense. His wives were fighting, and two of them wanted more
independence. The deranged prophet of the compound where Bill grew up was
trying to kill him, just one of the reasons Bill was trying to clean up the

His larger mission was to reform polygamy by introducing a bill to legalize it
and by starting his own church.

My guests, Mark Olsen, Will Scheffer, co-created "Big Love" and wrote the pilot
and the finale. They've been a couple for 20 years.

Let's start with a scene from the finale. Barb, the senior wife, feels strongly
that she's been called to the priesthood and should have the power to
administer blessings. But Bill thinks that this is a violation of their
religion for a woman to have this power.

This is the scene in which she reveals to Bill that she's planning to go
against his wishes and get baptized in a reformed Mormon church that allows
women to enter the priesthood. Bill's reaction is to start packing his bags.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Big Love")

Mr. BILL PAXTON (Actor): (As Bill Henrickson): You're getting baptized into the
reform church?

Ms. JEANNE TRIPPLEHORN (Actor): (As Barb Henrickson): Yes. I just, I didn't
know how to tell you, obviously, and I didn't think it would really change that
much. I really - now what are you doing?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) Going to Nickie's.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) No, Bill. That's not right.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) Not right? In the midst of this maelstrom, it's becoming
obvious we don't have much in common. Marriage is about sharing. There's none
of that going on between us except sharing problems, suspicions and disrespect.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) No. I've come to realize that it's unfair for me to
expect you to compromise your deeply held beliefs. So why keep rubbing your
nose in it? That's why I chose not to tell you. How much are you packing?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) I don't know.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) How long are you staying?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) I don't know. Could be this is just reality. Maybe things
are shifting. My responsibilities lie elsewhere, other children in other
houses, other churches.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) That's not fair. And this isn't right. I followed
you into polygamy, and let me tell you, it was pretty alien from my beliefs.
But I did it out of love.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) We're back in the public eye in a big way. This will only
be seen as your repudiation of us, of me, now, at our most delicate time as a
family. You just had to go and do this now.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) Yes, now.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) It's deliberately throwing a lit match on the gasoline.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) If you're going to be gone for one year or 20, I
need supports, a spiritual home to draw strength from.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) And it will destroy us.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) How?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) Your church is anti-polygamist. Church members are judged
by their families, and you'll be judged and held back because of us. You'll be
a chipped plate, a second-class citizen. You'll be ashamed of your church for
being intolerant of us and resentful of us for holding you back.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) No, please.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) The two nights I spent in jail, I didn't sleep. I wasn't
thinking about rape or being arrested or the humiliation. I was thinking about
us, you and me. And now we're back to this place.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) Well, what am I supposed to do? You have two spouses
to be with at night. I have none.

GROSS: Will Scheffer, Mark Olsen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the
ending of "Big Love," a great final episode. So there's so much to talk about.
Now, you know, the question I kept asking myself toward the end was: How are
you going to deal with the fact that each of the three wives is feeling very
hemmed in by Bill?

Barb thinks she's called to be a priest and administer blessings, which Bill
opposes. Margene wants to enter the outside world and maybe do relief work. And
even Nickie, who is the most traditional fundamentalist of the wives, wants to
expand her life, and she's been working in a shelter for abused polygamist

So all the wives seem to really move on and stop having to answer to Bill, and
your resolution was to shoot Bill. Like, at the last minute, he's shot and
killed by a neighbor who's flipping out after the neighbor and his wife
separated. And I didn't think of that at all.

So can you tell us how you decided to resolve the conflicts between the wives
and Bill by having Bill killed?

Mr. MARK OLSEN (Co-creator, "Big Love"): You know, it's a tough question
because I'm having problems with the premise of the question.


Mr. OLSEN: No, no. We approached that action of Bill's demise from a very
different paradigm. We didn't feel, contrary to much of our viewing audience,
that the wives were necessarily hemmed in by Bill.

Barb and Bill certainly this year have had a fundamental disagreement about
some theology, and it goes to the core, both of their cores, since this family
is largely theologically based or, you know, religiously based.

But her love for him also endures. So I've never looked at it as everyone is
chafing under Bill's authority, remove Bill from the equation and the wives are
OK. It was actually quite the opposite, that, believe it or not, we were trying
to dramatize a family still, at the end of five years with all the ups and
downs, that fundamentally continues to work.

At the end of the day, this family is an institution that, in theory, we hope
the audience if not is rooting for is at least invested in.

GROSS: So why did you have to kill Bill to do that?

Mr. OLSEN: Well, believe it or not, we wanted Bill to go out a hero. We wanted
him to go - I mean, on the most surface level, we wanted to give him sort of a
Gary Cooper kind of exit from the show, but it went much deeper than that.

In the writers' room at the beginning of this year, knowing that we were going
to be wrapping it up, we were looking down the road, and we didn't want Bill to
go out a loser or a failure or an unrepentant fundamentalist.

And we wanted to find that thing which would render his life's existence the
most successful. And we felt by far the greatest testimony to Bill would be
that he had created a family that endured. And we felt the best way to
establish that would be to then remove him from the equation via Carl and find
out that a year later, two years later, these women are still bound together,
are bonded deeply, in something like a family.

So that was the whole reason. That was our raison d'etre for Bill's demise.

GROSS: The ending is very much about sisterhood. You know, the three wives stay
together and seem closer than ever. Was that a big part of the equation when
you were figuring out how do we end this thing?

Mr. WILL SCHEFFER (Co-creator, "Big Love"): Absolutely. I mean, for me, I think
the big secret of the show, which I think a lot of people got at the beginning,
but some people were late to understanding, is that it's always been a feminist
show and that, even though it was dramatizing this very patriarchal system
that, you know, the show was really about sisterhood.

And it was one of the things that drew us to the material in the first place
and gave us reason to want to explore it because apart from all the crimes
against women that are committed on the compounds and the nature of the system,
which is inherently patriarchal, we felt that there were opportunities for
women to actually find support in one another.

And it was a large part of the literature and the interviews that we took part
in, that you heard a lot of that from sister-wives. And it was a fundamentally
fascinating dichotomy, you know, that we felt was very interesting.

Mr. OLSEN: And not only did we know that going into it, but as writers,
sometimes you discover things through, you know, gifts that the actors or
actresses bring to the material.

But sometimes your pens, or now your fingers on a keyboard, tell you where the
heat is, tell you what's really true about something. And there's no denying
that - I think certainly for Will and I, but for every writer who ever set foot
in the "Big Love" writers' room, those wives scenes, we call them the wives
meeting scenes, when everyone has their calendars and their planners and
whatnot, they're just the heart and soul. You know, they're the heart and soul
of any given episode and somewhat of the series itself.

I don't want to say they write themselves, but there's great joy in crafting
those, and you just know, from the minute those words hit the keyboard, that
that's where the gold is, and that's where the strength, so much of the core of
this family and this material is.

GROSS: Now, I just have to interrupt here and say that in the final season,
there was so much dissention within the family. I thought the family was
falling apart. I thought Barb was going to leave for several reasons.

One is, I mean, she just wanted to be more independent, and it was very hard
for her to be that way. She wanted to be a priestess, and she couldn't. And
there was so much resentment between a couple of the wives, and, you know,
Nickie was being more weird and more unpleasant than ever.

And I think if people are just - who don't know the series are just listening
to you talk, you'd think it was this, like, really harmonious family. And
things - I thought things were just, like, falling apart at the end. There was
so much conflict.

Mr. OLSEN: You know - and most people have felt that. I have to say we are
aware that most people have felt that. And it surprised me to a certain extent
that every time there would be some - I understand there's degrees of discord.

But every time there's a whiff of discord in the family, people were opining:
Oh, they're going to leave. Oh, they're going to bail. This one's about to

And, you know, Will and I have never looked at it like that. We've never played
the who's-going-to-leave-the-marriage game because I think we have a firm
belief that to a certain extent has been called into question by everyone's
response to this material, that you stick it out, that marriage is worth
sticking out.

And there's a family here. There's a relationship here. There's love beneath
the acrimony. There's certainly connection. And there's certainly identity. And
we've always felt that the hardest thing in the world is to forge that
independence in a marriage, you know, not to leave it and find it on the other
side of that, but to try and find that in union and in marriage.

So we've - and yes, Barb and Bill, we met at hammer and tong. And Nickie was a
rag this year. But I think honestly, my favorite scene of the finale and
perhaps of the series is that little car ride that Barb and the girls go on in
the finale. It's just - because it says it all. It says it all. Nickie is just
as sour as can be in that backseat, and Margene is as loving as she can be, and
all their problems are there. But you see the love that exists.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And I have to, you know, chime in and say that for us, the show
has been about staking out a marriage. Yeah, we've thrown everything at this
family, and certainly, you know, a person's independence and personhood is one
of the most fundamental rights and the most fundamental values I think in life.

And so I think that there's been this kind of shift in American culture, where
there's this idea that you can't have that unless you separate, divorce, go off
on your own. And for us marriage - we've been together 20 years, and marriage
is important, and it's a key value in our life. And we struggle with those

GROSS: I've got to interrupt. I appreciate what you're saying. Your
relationship, the one that you have with each other, I assume, is a
relationship of equality, which is not the relationship in "Big Love." You have
three women who on some level have to answer to the husband. They have to share
the husband.

He sees himself as the final arbiter of what the women are allowed to do. He
has to give them permission to be free if they want to be, you know,
independent. He's the wage-earner. He's the decision-maker. He's the final
authority. He's the powerbroker. It's not a relationship of equals.

Mr. SCHEFFER: No, it's not, I mean, and that's what we've dramatized. And we've
pushed that - we've questioned that essential structure to its limit.

And I think that, you know, one thing that we're positing in this finale is
that: What would have happened if this structure were allowed to develop
outside of the shadows, outside of the compound.

GROSS: The structure meaning polygamy?

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. I mean, it's something that we posit, you know, in this
final year especially. And I don't think we necessarily make any final
judgments about it. But look, in a way, this show has been a metaphor for
marriage, period.

And that essential value of staying and struggling it through - look, we're not
saying that people on the compound and women on the compound should stay in
this kind of structure but that this particular relationship that we've chosen
to dramatize, this particular family, this family in the context that we've
created for them, we've seen them begin to grow and change in ways that we
didn't necessarily expect.

Mr. OLSEN: Clearly, I don't think we ever want to be considered poster boys for
the fact that if you're born in an abusive relationship, you endure, and
there's value in that, because I don't think that's really what the show is.

But we have been dramatizing the evolution and change in a fundamentalist,
patriarchal family from year one to year five. And we've been watching them,
all of them, you know, struggle with their roles and the relationship of power
and whatnot as Bill, as a patriarch - I mean, you're quite right. He does hold
the cards. But there's growth in the guy, and that's kind of what we're looking
at is the growth in that family.

GROSS: My guests are Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, the co-creators of "Big
Love," and they've also written many of the episodes and "Big Love" has just
ended in a very surprising way, bringing this HBO series to I think a very
fulfilling close.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Spoiler alert: We're talking about last night's final episode of the HBO
series "Big Love." My guests are the co-creators of the series, Will Scheffer
and Mark Olsen. The series ended with Bill, the main character, getting shot to
death by his neighbor.

So what was it like when you told Bill Paxton that his character was going to
be shot to death in the final episode? Like, were you in the room? Did you tell
him, or were you in the room with him when he read the script so you could see
the look on his face?

Mr. SCHEFFER: We were in the room when Bill read the script. And we had all of
our, you know, main, key actors, we gave them the red pages, as they were
called. Mark and I gave them personally, and we were sitting with them while
they read them. Bill wasn't happy.

Mr. OLSEN: Bill had trouble with it. Bill - initially, we should say.
Initially, Bill had trouble with the fact that his character was going to die.
It's not how he envisioned the end of his character's journey nor the end of
the series.

And he just had a big problem with it. I think it was partly - I think it
worked on a lot of levels. But I just think he had a vested relationship in the
character of Bill Henrickson. He feels, and rightfully so, that he has
husbanded that character for five years, and it hurt him to know that that
character was going to die. It hurt him.

We explained what we were going for, and he got it. He heard that. But it took
about a week or two for Bill to come around and see it differently.

GROSS: So if Bill Paxton didn't want his character to be shot to death, if he
thought that that was a mistake, do you know how he envisioned the ending, what
were the alternative endings he saw in his mind?

Mr. OLSEN: Well, kind of, kind of because it's what he wanted every year, and
he wanted more of it. I think literally he wanted he and the wives to go head
off into the sunset together. Maybe if they were all on horses and cowboy hats
- you know, he's always had this very romantic vision, and I mean that in a
good way, of he and his wives.

I think it stunned Bill himself to find out that so many women across America
were angry at him and his character.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: No, it did. It did. I think it hurt his feelings. And I think he was
surprised. You know, to varying degrees, Will and I were surprised at that
response, as well. But he's always had this vision of Bill and these wives kind
of as rock stars, as the Beatles. And he wanted them to go on in a very kind of
romantic way.

GROSS: In the writers' room, when you try and figure out what is the ending
going to be, did you all agree, yes, absolutely, Bill, the patriarch of the
family, is going to be shot to death, that's what we're going to do? Or were
there alternate endings that were proposed that you considered and then decided
to reject?

Mr. SCHEFFER: I remember that when this idea, you know, kind of fully - that we
knew we were going to end it this year and that we had this kind of ending in
sight that people were generally - and the wives would go on afterwards, you
know, that that was the epilogue that we always envisioned, everyone was pretty
supportive and on-board with it is what I remember.

And, you know, I know we ran it by HBO just to make sure that they were behind
it ending this way, and they were very supportive. They loved it.

And then we had second guesses. You know, should we really do this? You know,
and it was like that kind of back-stepping that you do. But we were well into
having conceived the last year and sort of dotted all the I's and crossed the
T's that we started to think: Is this really - do we really want to do this?

You know, but I think at the beginning of our writing period this year, when we
said this is what we want to do now, it's time, everyone was pretty on-board.

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, Will's right. We staked out that territory. Like a lot of the
major decisions that we've done story-wise on this show, it kind of bursts out
of one of us, it lands almost fully formed, and we stick to it.

I remember very vividly we were driving home on a section of the 210 highway -
before the writers, when we were in the writers' room. And we were just batting
ideas. It was the last season. How's it going to end?

And I have to say I think Will's the one who came up with: Bill dies, the wives
stick together. I mean, it was just that simple and that clean. And that has
always been the touchstone, the lodestar.

As Will says: Once you come up with a theory, once you come up with a goal,
you'll spend months second-guessing it. There was a good three-week period
where we were evaluating: No, maybe actually Barb gets cancer again, and - and
by, like, episode nine or 10, we had this incredible - I have to say incredibly
moving scenario where she goes to Oregon, the family goes to Oregon, to see
Sarah one last time. Barb's gone through the ravages of chemo, and the wives
and Bill let her go in the Pacific Ocean.

You know, we toyed with a lot of stuff. But it always kept coming back to it -
no, that strong card got - that trumps. That original instinct just tends to
trump. It all makes sense with that choice.

GROSS: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the co-creators of "Big Love," will be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mark Olsen and Will
Scheffer, the creators of the HBO series “Big Love,” which concluded its fifth
and final season last night. So consider this a spoiler alert.

The series revolved around a polygamist family: Bill Hendrickson and his wives,
Barb, Nicki, and Margene. Bill grew up on a fundamentalist compound run by a
self-appointed profit who considered himself the leader of the true Mormons,
although the Mormon Church totally disavowed the group and its polygamist
practices. Bill left the compound when he was 14 but continued to believe in

Let's hear the scene Mark Olsen described as perhaps his favorite scene from
the finale. Barb has traded in her old station wagon for a new sporty
convertible, something totally out of character for such a practical woman. In
this scene, Barb takes her two sister wives for a drive on the highway in her
new car. Barb and Margene love the sense of freedom; the disapproving Nicki is
in the backseat.

(Soundbite of HBO series, “Big Love”)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHLOE SEVIGNY (Actor): (as Nicki) It's cramped back here.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) I figured I didn't need the extra space since I'm no
longer hauling kids and groceries full time.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) Our responsibilities have changed, as both you and Bill
keep reminding me.

Ms. GINNIFER GOODWIN (Actor): (as Margene) Make it go really fast.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) Where do you want to go, downtown?

Ms. GOODWIN: (as Margene) No, out of town. Healthier far away, way out.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) Could you put the top up, please?

(Soundbite of sigh)

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) Just relax. Enjoy the ride. It's the last time we'll
all be together for the first time in Honeybee.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) You named you impractical little car Honeybee?

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) Mm-hmm.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) I think In Your Face would be a better name.

Ms. GOODWIN: (as Margene) All right everyone, be quiet. Let's go.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Now, there's a lot of other things that have happened in this season and
in previous seasons, where I wonder when did you know that this was a trait of
the character. For example, in this season, in this final season, we learned
that Margene, who's youngest of the wives, was actually underage when she
married Bill. She was only 16, which means that when she was 16 and
consummating the relationship with Bill it was statutory rape legally. And Bill
is shocked. He didn't know she was 16, she had kept that hidden. And he's
actually being charged with statutory rape and facing up to 20 years in prison.

When did you, the creators and writers of the show, know that Margene was
underage? Did you know that in season one?

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah. I'm trying to protect ourselves in this answer so it doesn't
seem like we're seat of the...

GROSS: Why do you need protection?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it doesn't seem like we're seat of the
pants, fly-by-night, anything goes kind of guys. But yeah, truthfully, no, we
did not know that. We learned that, as it were...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: ...midpoint through the season. We were cracking the Christmas
episode in the writers' room. Will was not part of the writers' room at that
process. He was off in his office doing a draft of our season opener, so he was
absent from most of our discussions as we were doing our infamous Christmas

And we had all the stories there. We had it all laid out, but it wasn't – the
engine wasn't turning over. There was something fundamentally wrong. You know,
Will and I come from large families, and particularly on my side, they're very
messy Christmases. There was a kind of mess that had not quite landed yet in
that episode.

And I remember going back to Will's office going, we've got to send Jamie out
to draft. We've got to send her out to outline, but it's not quite there.
What's missing? And Will just out of the blue blurts out: Marge reveals she was
16 when they got married. You know, and it was one of those things it, yes, it
was in the very, very in the moment, but in the best possible way that it not
only turned over that episode, it made sense of the season. It made sense of
that character. It just made sense of everything.

And you, one of the – Will was talking about it a few moments ago, you discover
more as you go along about the characters. You certainly have your roadmap but
many things happened on the way to Rome and you can go off in different
directions, as we certainly have. But you're always trying to fill in
backstory. And you allow yourself that freedom. You allow certain undelineated
areas of character to exist to become hosts of material as you go forward so
that the creative process remains alive and vivid and you're not just doling
out consequences of pre-existing facts.

So, short answer. On the one hand, it was very in the moment. But on the other,
it was one of those things that felt just inevitable the second it came out of
Will. It just - it felt like this inevitable that we were lucky enough to
receive, you know, in time to harness it.

GROSS: Now let me ask you another question about when you knew about a certain
plot development or personality trait, character trait in “Big Love.” Alby,
who, a great character in the series and a great performance by Matt Ross, Alby
is - starts off the series as the son of the self-proclaimed prophet of the
fundamentalist compound. And he's a self-proclaimed prophet, he's a cult leader
and he's no good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He's a really evil guy. And Alby, the son, becomes more and more evil
and, may I say, demented as the series goes on, and he's responsible for crimes
and sadistic acts. But we also learn he's a very repressed deeply in the closet
homosexual who happens to be living his life as a polygamist heterosexual. The
reality and the truth of who he is aren't getting along very well and obviously
being eaten alive by that. When did you guys know that Alby was a deeply
closeted repressed homosexual?

Mr. SCHEFFER: I think we knew that from the beginning. It was sort of I don't
think we knew the behavior as well as we kind of learned it in the first year
because he, you know, I think that's when we start to establish this kind of
specific ways that he, you know, kind of behaves as a repressed gay man in this
particular context of this, you know, horrible fundamentalist life on a

Mr. OLSEN: Well, it was baked into the DNA of that character in the show. That
character was always intended to be the – represent the ascension of Warren
Jeffs in Colorado City. And although nothing has ever been proven, to my mind
Warren Jeffs has always had a certain effeminate air that comes off him. It
just – it's what he exudes. And we borrowed that. I mean we knew that. We knew
that was part of what Matt was doing. It was part of why we cast him, part of
what he presented that was so interesting.

And there was a long discussion. There was a long deeply collaborative
discussion with HBO if we really wanted to go in this direction with this
character and we said absolutely.

GROSS: I'm wondering if the connection that you made between Alby's repressed
homosexuality and his sadism and brutality was challenged by some viewers,
particularly gay viewers, who might feel that back in the days when
homosexuality was considered a pathology and was even defined medically as a
pathology. In some movies, if you were gay and you were repressed, that would
explain, you know, you were evil. There was something evil that you were going
to express during the course of the film. And I think some people are really
uncomfortable with that.

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah. I think that's a totally valid point. I do. And it's one that
we entertained a lot when we were discussing the direction to take Alby's
character. Do we want to use this as a vehicle to dramatize someone who is
repressed and finds a way through that thicket to claim their soul and to claim
their ultimate identity, which is a very valid choice, even in that world.

You know, there's many ex – not that Mormons are fundamentalists themselves –
but there's, you know, many gay ex-Mormons who have gone through really hard
times and certainly stand for the proposition that that is a valid dramatic
choice. But I think we felt that the other choice was something that we were
much more interested in nailing in this particular material. And I don't think
it – I would rephrase the question a little bit or the assumption behind the

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OLSEN: It's not so much that because one is repressed one is necessary - or
gay and repressed one is evil back into the 50s pathology, but I do think Will
and I are basically comfortable that if one is gay and repressed there is a
certain tragedy to that in the same way that any soul that does not find its
expression, does not find its purpose in life's expression and a degree of
authenticity, whatever that lid is that's placed on top of them is a tragic lid
and the life lived on the other side of it will be to greater or lesser degree
somewhat in a shadow or a fraction of what the fullest expression of that soul
could become.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And I think, you know, I have to say that, you know, we're
middle-aged gay men and, you know, we were born into a '70s kind of culture. I,
you know, Vito Russo's book about the stereotypical, you know, behavior of gay
characters in popular culture was, you know, on our radar, our reading list,
and it was something that we were completely a part of. And so I think that
making a piece of popular culture in 2007, when we kind of were fully invested
in “Big Love,” we had come through a lot of iterations of the portrayal of gays
in popular culture, you know, over the years.

And so we thought we were doing something kind of subversive and fresh and
exciting by portraying a gay character in this context who was still being so
abused by a culture and so repressed that people still kill themselves, you
know, which was always a kind of critique that we kind of had against a lot of
versions of popular culture like “The Children's Hour” in the '50s.

And you know, and I think that, you know, what we thought we were doing and
what we were excited about was in this particular culture the conditions aren't
unlike the 1950s, you know, and so people do still kill themselves. People are
separated from the mainstream enough so that they don't value themselves as gay
and women. And there are these kind of conditions that still result in this
kind of horrible repression that Alby's impossible life, you know, kind of

So we thought we were kind of saying look guys, we've been through this. You
know, we've lived through this; we've seen popular culture hopefully move on
from this, but it's still happening in certain places in America.

GROSS: My guests are Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, the creators of the HBO
series “Big Love,” which ended its five-season run last night. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the co-creators of “Big
Love,” the HBO series about a polygamist family, which concluded last night
after five seasons.

In the final episode of the previous season, of the penultimate season of “Big
Love,” the character of Bill comes out publicly as a polygamist man. This is
right after he wins the election for state Senate, and that public coming out,
the repercussions of that play throughout the final episode.

As gay men yourselves, did you have any kind of coming out experiences that you
let reverberate in Bill's coming out as a polygamist - not to compare
homosexuality and polygamy, but there's still this sense of this like, you
know, public coming out?

Mr. SCHEFFER: I think that, you know, there's a certain point as a gay man, as
a gay artist, as someone who's sort of coming to terms with themselves and
coming to terms with what they want to do in the world where, you know, at a
certain point it's not enough to be private about it. It's not enough to sort
of hold it inside and go through one's life without telling one's parents,
one's, you know, one's family, one's community. And, you know, it's something
that becomes almost essential to your soul that it's expressed. You know, and
in order to be a whole person you feel like you've got to state it and you've
got to state it publicly.

And that's something that I think became important to Bill's character and I
think that that was something that you saw him make the decision about, not
only for political reasons where he felt like polygamy was being misrepresented
by the compounds and the public - I'm talking about the fictional world, you
know, the way that the compounds were representing polygamy in the public eye,
that he had to make a statement about what he felt his family meant and he had
to sort of put another persona on polygamy.

Mr. OLSEN: I think the decision that we made fourth season for Bill, the
character, to make an assessment of his life and determine you know what, I'm
running for office because I'm going to take this platform, a public platform,
and declare who we are and put a new face on polygamy.

I think it comes from, well, certainly I can speak to my life and the issues
that relate to and the tsuris engendered by keeping this secret, you know, it
becomes overwhelming. As the years accrete and you're still compartmentalizing
and you're still trying to juggle who knows, who doesn't know, how do I keep
these separate factions apart and how do I keep them from not speaking to, you
know, it just, and that was Bill's life. That was what he had come to. And he
made an assessment that the problems that he was facing in his family were to a
certain extent related to that secret keeping.

And Will's right. You know, it was gilded with other colors. He was - he didn't
want the public face of polygamy to be determined by the face of the compound's
any, you know, in the same way that we kind of look at each other. It's like
must the Gay Pride Parade began with the float with the transvestite?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: You know, can't it begin with the businessman, you know? So yes,
there's a lot of other colors that go into it and impulses. But I think anyone
who is pushed into, you know, pushed into that corner and is keeping those deep
personal secrets about something that goes to the very core of who they are,
just has that inextirpable impulse to be free, to be free of it.

GROSS: So you've been married for 20 years, and gay marriage has been legal a
much shorter time than that. So when you were married 20 years ago, was that a
religious ceremony or an improvised ceremony?

Mr. OLSEN: We - there's two dates. There's June 21st, Mark into Will's
apartment. And which was what - 1991, 1990 – whatever it was?

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. Almost 20 years ago.

Mr. OLSEN: And then when there was the brief window here in California. We
actually just moments before the November election on Prop 8, we had a justice
of the peace quickly assemble in our editor's room and made it official.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. We had, you know, claimed domestic partnership at City Hall
way early way into our relationship, so I think we thought of ourself as
married, and as the kind of debate has, you know, kind of raged around us,
we've made our own determination of how important marriage was to us as a
couple and what kind of vows and contractual elements we wanted to put into
place and what kind of standing before our family and our community and before,
you know, God and the universe that we wanted to have in terms of this
commitment we have to each other.

Mr. OLSEN: Before God, the universe and HBO.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So "Big Love" just ended after five seasons.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. I...

GROSS: I'm going to miss the characters. Will you?

Mr. OLSEN: Desperately.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Very much.

Mr. OLSEN: No. Will, you have not earned the right to say that.


Mr. OLSEN: Just two months ago you were like I don't want a sixth - I'm so sick
of these characters. I'm so sick of these characters. And I'm like...

Mr. SCHEFFER: I didn't say I was sick of the characters. I said I was...

Mr. OLSEN: Don't go there. Don't go there.

Mr. SCHEFFER: ...tired of writing the show.

Mr. OLSEN: All right. Well, all right.

Mr. SCHEFFER: I love the characters.

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, it, you know what? It's - we're going through withdrawal right
now, or at least I am. I'll speak for myself. Those characters, and
particularly when you're running a show and taking it this distance, they are
in your head 24/7. Yeah. You're on the toilet, the characters are talking in
your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: You're shaving, the characters are in your head. You're doing the
dishes, you're talking to the characters. You're - they live with you, you
know, in your soul. They are as real as any member of my family, you know, and
as real or realer than the friends I once had when I had time for friends
before the series began.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: You know, and so it's a wrenching process to let go of them. We love
them desperately.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. I didn't know how hard it was going to be to wrap it up.
You know, I was sort of I remember like around episode seven, before we had,
you know, revealed the ending to the actors, you know, some of the other
producers would come in and they'd be a little bit mopey and I'd be like, what
are you talking about? We've got a show to put on, people, you know. And I just
was like really kind of not feeling it. And then when we got - as soon as we
told the actors - I think it was around episode eight or around then, out of
10, I just had the most difficult time. I mean Mark will tell you, I was crying
nonstop from that point on and it was just much more wrenching than I ever
imagined it would be, to give up the characters, you know, and give up the

GROSS: So one more question. You've been together for 20 years. You're married.
Is doing a series together good for a relationship? Would you recommend other
couples try it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHEFFER: It depends on the couple, certainly. It's been good for us, and I
think it sort of goes towards what we've been saying. You know, it's been
difficult. I wouldn't have it any other way, certainly. I think it's forged us.
I don't think we'd be the couple we are had we not had this experience

Mr. OLSEN: I would also say though, you - it's not for the faint of heart. And
you'd better have your ducks in a row before you enter into it.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you so much for the series.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Thank you so much, Terry.

Mr. OLSEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer co-created the HBO series "Big Love," which
ended its fifth and final season last night.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A Reissue Of Nick Lowe's 'Labour Of Lust' Is 'So Fine'


In the upheavals that have rocked the music business over the past couple of
decades, countless albums that were once considered essential or classic have
gotten lost.

Nick Lowe's second album, "Labour of Lust," was released in 1979 and has been
out of print for nearly 20 years. Yep Roc Records has remedied that situation
with a new reissue, and rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

(Soundbite of song, "Born Fighter")

Mr. NICK LOWE (Musician): (Singing) Well, here she comes again, blowing
everybody's circuits. Girls like that bring a lump to my pocket. Everybody says
I can never get her. I've been a lot of things. But I never was a quitter. I'm
a born fighter. I've got a wriggle for my will now. I'm a born fighter. How I
hate it on a plate. Shoe shopping...

ED WARD: Simultaneously with the rediscovery of Nick Lowe's classic 1979 album
"Labour of Lust," someone's dug up an old British television documentary which
was shot in Eden Studios as Lowe recorded and posted it on YouTube. The film,
titled "Born Fighters," has been chopped into 12 tiny pieces, which makes it
hard to watch, but it shows the intensity Lowe put into the project.

There were four musicians involved - Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner on guitars,
Lowe on bass and Terry Williams on drums - and depending on who had the most
recent album out, they toured as either Dave Edmunds and Rockpile or Nick Lowe
and Rockpile. The reputation they had as one of the tightest bands around was,
as I can attest from having seen them several times, well deserved.

(Soundbite of song, "Big Kick, Plain Scrap")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Big kick, plain scrap. You better shut that trap or come
and get it. You kick like a mule. You eat like a pig. You drink like a fish. Oh
you're a queer one, baby. Oh, when you hold me, in the night. On drugs. You're
so nice on drugs. Big kick, plain scrap.

WARD: One thing about the band was their ability to, as it were, speak punk
without being punk. Edmunds' part of the band stuck closer to more traditional
classic rock and roll, but Lowe already had the reputation of having produced
bands like The Damned, as well as his protege, Elvis Costello. The British
press may have said snide things about their being too old to play like that -
the liner notes say their average age was an ancient 32 - but the British press
was always saying snide things, and the proof was in the grooves.

"Labour of Lust" was something of a crucial test for Lowe. His British record
company, Radar, had signed a deal with Columbia in the U.S., where radio's
resistance to the new music of the late '70s was at a high point. His first
album, called "Jesus of Cool" in the U.K. but re-titled "Pure Pop for Now
People" for the American market, and was just that - pure pop. But although a
couple of singles were pulled from it, they flopped. Gregg Geller, who was
overseeing the new album for Columbia, asked Lowe to include a song he'd
recorded with his old band, Brinsley Schwarz, and it turned out to make all the

(Soundbite of song, "Cruel to Be Kind")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Oh, I can't take another heartache. Though you say, oh my
friend, I'm at my wit's end. You say your love is bona fide, but that don't
coincide with the things that you do, and when I ask you to be nice you say
you've got to be cruel to be kind in the right measure. Cruel to be kind it's a
very good sign. Cruel to be kind means that I love you. Baby, got to be cruel,
got to be cruel to be kind.

"Cruel to Be Kind" was, and remains, Lowe's biggest U.S. hit, peaking at 12 on
the Billboard chart, not coincidentally because a brand-new television channel,
MTV, showed its video, which was shot at Lowe's wedding to Carlene Carter, part
of the extended Johnny Cash family. Some of us had already heard a single Lowe
had recorded with Elvis Costello's band, released in England, and which showed
up on the album, which could well have been about her.

(Soundbite of song, "American Squirm")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) I made an American squirm and it felt so right. On screen
was the musical worm, deep deep into the night.

Yes I was living in a wonderful world. Everything was fine. Tried to mate in a
horrible state. Deep deep into the night. It goes on and on and on. It goes on
and on and on. It goes on...

WARD: But Johnny Cash was a fan of his new son-in-law, and would soon record
his version of one of "Labour of Lust"'s best songs, "Without Love."

(Soundbite of song, "Without Love")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Without love, I am half human. Without love, I'm more
machine. Without love there's nothing doing. I will die without love. Without
love I am an island all by myself in a heartbreak sea. Without love there's no
denying. I am dying without love.

Oh there is nowhere I can run and there is no hiding place. Sticking out like a
sore thumb by the gloomy look upon my face. Without love...

WARD: In the end, Nick Lowe proved to be more of an album artist than a singles
artist. He's had a long and fruitful career, and this is the record which
established him. It's good to have it back.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. He blogs at He reviewed the reissue of Nick Lowe's album "Labour
of Lust."

You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

(Soundbite of song, "Switchboard Susan")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Switchboard Susan, won't you give me a line. I need a
doctor, give me 999...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue