The Best Show You Might Not Be Watching: Big Love

by Mike on 4/3/2006

in The Toxic Soup We Call Pop Culture

HBO executives last week announced the next wave of original series they’re going to be adding to their lineup – a cop show, a hospital drama, a hospital comedy, and a new reality show.

Just kidding.

HBO calls its original series development “groundbreaking” and fairly so. If it could air on the major broadcast networks, you won’t find it here. And that’s not just because HBO can include profanity and nudity without the FCC birthing a collective cow. It’s because they purposely strive for the shows that break out of the mold of what you’ll see everywhere else.

The newest example of that is “Big Love,” a show that never would have seen the light of day in any of the Big Four shops. Set in Salt Lake City, the show follows a family of one husband (Bill Paxton), three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin), and seven kids as they struggle to build a suburban life in the seam between the fundamentalist society they left behind and the modern mainstream society that condemns their marriage practices. The show manages to explore larger dualist themes – good and evil, faith and temptation, wealth and poverty, male and female – through the prism of its richly written characters and their interactions.

The family homes, clustered around a central backyard, provide the backdrop for the show’s core – the dynamics among husband and wives. Paxton’s character Bill Henrickson loves all three wives, and they all love him. To some extent the wives could even be said to love each other, although that love is often clouded by the jealousies inherent in sharing a partner three ways, the difficult logistics of managing three households, and the natural friction that develops whenever a group of people live together in close quarters. Add to that the tension of the wives’ different ages – Barb, the eldest, seems to be early forties while Margene, the youngest, is no more than 25 – and you’ve got a seething cauldron of drama just waiting to boil over.

Put a lid on it and call it a pressure cooker. In their desire to be left alone, the Henricksons have just moved into three brand new homes adjacent to each other – a typical suburban setting in every other way than their own arrangements. On the one hand, they try to conceal their lives from their more conventional neighbors, who grow increasingly suspicious as time goes on. The consequences of discovery by outsiders are potentilly grave – criminal prosecution, loss of their livelihoods (Bill owns a home-improvement store, Barb is a substitute teacher at a local school), possibly even the dissolution of their family.

This threat almost seems minor compared to the peril posed by the community they have disavowed – the Compound-dwelling clan led by Roman, the Prophet. Harry Dean Stanton plays Roman with a perfect creepiness, making him one of the few TV villains that actually chill my blood when they appear onscreen. He embraces soft-voiced zealotry: “There’s man’s law and God’s law. You know which side I’m on.” He plays guitar and sings “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to a group of children – including the 14-year-old who is his newest bride. He’s willing to murder for his own ends, which at this point have not been revealed. Most important of all, he’s insinuated himself into the Henrickson household in a way they cannot possibly escape – his daughter Nikki is Bill’s second wife, and her loyalty to her father sometimes seems to trump her commitment to her manifold marriage.

The struggle with Roman plays out through Bill’s business, which Roman claims a piece of in payment for a substantial business loan. The two disagree about just what it is Bill owes Roman, and the clash between the two serves as the chief drama outside the household. The Prophet’s willingness to do almost anything to have his way, and Bill’s inability to escape his influence, work to make their scenes some of the most entertaining of the show.

“Big Love” is thoughtful, multi-dimensional, and entertaining. Compared with anything else on TV right now, even some of HBO’s other series, it’s a work of genius standing out in a field of mediocrity. It’s getting decent ratings, but the drop-off between “The Sopranos” and “Big Love” on Sunday nights suggests that many people are changing channels to watch the same old cops-and-doctors shows instead of this. And that, my friends, is the real crime.

  • http://cruftbox.com/ Michael

    I watched the show, expecting to hate it and I think it’s great. My wife watched it, and now she’s hooked as well. HBO is simply on the ball with these series.

  • http://cruftbox.com Michael

    I watched the show, expecting to hate it and I think it’s great. My wife watched it, and now she’s hooked as well. HBO is simply on the ball with these series.

  • http://www.spockosbrain.com/ spocko

    Guess what? It turns out that Big Love is based on some real stories?
    UEB the group that HDS it the head of is modeled on UEP in Utah.
    There is a book out about the whole group (I can’t remember the name right now). A friend read it and she said that the show really pulls a lot from it. Most disturbing is the way that women are treated and the tricks that they use to rip off the government.

    I like the shows and especially the interactions between Roman and Bill. Wife no 2, Nikki is really going to get them all in trouble and wife no. 3 is going to spill the bean by accident.
    Do you think that wife no. 3 Marjean will start making out with the oldest boy? He seems to be flirting with her and vice versa. I wonder what that will do to the family?

    I agree it’s better than most fair on regular TV, but I still want it to push harder on the conflict and the danger, just to crank up the tension even more.

    By the way, of all the regular TV that I still watch my number one favorite right now? Vernoica Mars! Do you watch it?

  • http://www.spockosbrain.com spocko

    Guess what? It turns out that Big Love is based on some real stories?
    UEB the group that HDS it the head of is modeled on UEP in Utah.
    There is a book out about the whole group (I can’t remember the name right now). A friend read it and she said that the show really pulls a lot from it. Most disturbing is the way that women are treated and the tricks that they use to rip off the government.

    I like the shows and especially the interactions between Roman and Bill. Wife no 2, Nikki is really going to get them all in trouble and wife no. 3 is going to spill the bean by accident.
    Do you think that wife no. 3 Marjean will start making out with the oldest boy? He seems to be flirting with her and vice versa. I wonder what that will do to the family?

    I agree it’s better than most fair on regular TV, but I still want it to push harder on the conflict and the danger, just to crank up the tension even more.

    By the way, of all the regular TV that I still watch my number one favorite right now? Vernoica Mars! Do you watch it?

  • Mike

    Spocko, It would be great if you could find out the name of the book – I’d be interested in reading it.

    I think the show so far is doing a good job of showing how the women are treated within the UEB compound, with a nice contrast to the way they are treated in the Henrickson household.

    By “rip off the government” I assume you mean tax evasion of some kind? That’s hardly unique to polygamists or even religious organizations.

    I don’t think Margene will actually do anything with Ben other than flirt. That would move the tone of the show from tension to something else entirely.

    I’m not watching Veronica Mars but those who have watched it tend to be big fans. I’m sure I’ll pick it up on DVD next year or so.

  • Mike

    Spocko, It would be great if you could find out the name of the book – I’d be interested in reading it.

    I think the show so far is doing a good job of showing how the women are treated within the UEB compound, with a nice contrast to the way they are treated in the Henrickson household.

    By “rip off the government” I assume you mean tax evasion of some kind? That’s hardly unique to polygamists or even religious organizations.

    I don’t think Margene will actually do anything with Ben other than flirt. That would move the tone of the show from tension to something else entirely.

    I’m not watching Veronica Mars but those who have watched it tend to be big fans. I’m sure I’ll pick it up on DVD next year or so.

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