TV Review: Big Love – Season One

I think I'll stick with my first wife.

Big Love Season One

Starring: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Dern, Grace Zabriskie, Amanda Seyfried, Douglas Smith

Series Creators: Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer

I’ve jumped onto the HBO bandwagon a little late, not having watched any of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, or The Wire (although, I do plan on catching up on the last two, starting with Six Feet Under in the next couple weeks). The main reason for this is the simple fact that HBO isn’t available in Canada, but, of course, DVD has changed that. Plus, Canadian networks have managed to get HBO shows syndicated after the fact (which is how I watched most of Oz). But it wasn’t until my HD movie channel started airing some HBO shows as they aired (as opposed to months after their seasons wrapped), starting with Rome, did I become a believer. HBO truly does excellent television (or… not television, according to their slogan).

When I heard about their new series, Big Love, starring Bill Paxton as a Mormon polygamist living in Salt Lake City, I thought the premise sounded a little desperately controversial, but decided it was worth a shot for its HBO credentials alone (well, that and its fairly impressive cast). The other great thing about an HBO series is that they don’t require a large commitment of time (season one is 13 episodes), and you can be confident that the network will let the show complete its season, and most likely follow itself through to its logical conclusion as a series (Carnivàle being a major exception). After the first episode, I was fairly confident that the series was worth my time. After two episodes, I was hooked. And after re-watching the series recently on DVD, I realised that Big Love is one of the best shows on TV, even better than I remembered it to be when I ranked it my number four show of 2006.

The show quickly establishes that it isn’t just chasing controversy by having a Mormon polygamist in the year 2006. It makes it quite clear that Bill Henrickson (Paxton) and his wives Barb Henrickson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette Grant (Chloë Sevigny), and Margene Heffman (Ginnifer Goodwin) are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially suspended the practice of polygamy in 1890, but rather practitioners of a fundamentalist splinter group who still believe in The Principal (as plural marriage is refered to as by characters practicing polygamy). The Henricksons must keep their beliefs hidden from their LDS neighbours, for fear of social reprisals, that could include damage to Bill’s Henrickson’s Home Plus stores, that rely heavily on their connection to the community to compete with the Home Depots and Walmarts of the world.

After establishing that the show isn’t necessarily attacking Mormonism, the series sets out to attack views and conceptions we might have about the plural marriage lifestyle. It’s really thought-provoking stuff, taking a concept that initially seems exploitative and vulgar, and making us rethink our positions, and constantly re-evaluate our sympathies. At the same time, the series doesn’t gloss over the unsavoury nature of the arrangements, or the problems that arise from it. Nothing in this series is completely good or bad, just delightfully ambiguous.

At the centre of the series is Bill, a moderately-successful business man of above average intelligence, committed to his values and his family (a family that includes wives Barb, Nicki, and Margene, along with their seven children). He is an easily-likable character almost immediately, a soft-spoken, confident man who tries to do right by his family, while dealing with the demons of his past. Those demons largely come in the form of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), leader of the United Effort Brotherhood (UEB), the compound of fundamentalist Mormons where Bill was raised. Roman is a shadowy figure, who uses his position of prophet, along with his considerable wealth, to influence everyone on the compound (including Bill’s jerk father Frank Harlow, Bruce Dern, his crazy mom Lois Henrickson, Grace Zabriskie, his recovering drug-addict brother Joey, Shawn Doyle, and Joey’s wife Wanda, Melora Walters) and attempts to keep Bill under his thumb, owing to a business loan that helped get Henrickson’s Home Plus underway. This conflict is central to the show, adding a constant element of suspense to what is essentially a non-traditional family drama.

Beneath the trappings of plural marriage, Big Love is a show about family. Most of the drama centres around the three Henrickson homes that sit next to each other on a quiet suburban Salt Lake City street, sharing a backyard to join the three families together. The dynamics between these characters are fascinating, the way Bill tries to juggle the demands of his three wives and how his ego at times gets the best of him. The way the wives view each other both as competition for Bill’s time and affection, and also as best friends and sisters (they are married to each other, after all, not just to Bill). Barb is the matriarch of the clan, running the household according to schedules and using her position as first wife (and, thus, the only legal partner of Bill) to mediate squabbles. Nicki, daughter of Roman who grew up in the UEB compound, constantly challenges Barb (whom she refers to as “Boss Lady”) and picks on Margene, using her overall bitchy attitude to get her way. Margene is the youngest (23 years old, and mother to infants Aaron and Lester), constantly trying to find her place in the arrangement, while not really understanding everything all together. God bless Margene, she’s sweet and means well, but isn’t the brightest bulb in the three households.

The audience naturally gravitates to Barb, who originally had Bill all to herself in a traditional LDS marriage that included daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), son Ben (Douglas Smith), and daughter Tancy (“Teeny”, Jolean Wejbe). It wasn’t until after Barb contracted ovarian cancer did the two turn back to Bill’s original faith, and marry Nicki. In the audience’s eyes, Barb is the true wife, the martyr who made sacrifices so her husband could have more women (and thus, more children). Tripplehorn is magnificent in the part, comfortably wearing signs of her age while at the same time looking radiant. She is incredibly sympathetic, while looking like a saint for putting up with Nicki. But, as the season develops, cracks begin to show in Barb’s sainthood (while she still maintains her sympathetic nature), and Nicki, while a pill, shows dimensions that begin to make her character more sympathetic.

It’s a testament to the show and the performers that every character seems fully-formed and three-dimensional, especially when the series only has 13 episodes to work with, and has a lot of plot to cover. Watching the season again on DVD, I was surprised to see that major themes and arcs I remembered ended up occurring over only one or two episodes. They pack in a lot of story in these episodes, while never sacrificing character development. It is truly remarkable storytelling, packed with fantastic performances from everyone in the cast.

The simple fact that the show is able to take the seemingly-tired premise of a family drama, and manage to draw out this much suspense, emotion, humour, and pathos is remarkable. It starts off as taboo, then works around it to show that these people aren’t an Issue, they’re just people. You connect with them quickly, while never forgetting the realities of their situation. You cheer for Barb and Bill to reignite their romance, then remember that Nicki and Margene are people deserving of our sympathy too (as are their children, including Nicki’s two sons Wayne and Raymond). Impossibly, HBO has taken a family of four spouses and made them into the most realistic family portrait on television. I fully recommend that anyone looking for quality television check it out; if possible, you should do so before season two starts on June 11th.

5/5

Related:
Once & Again – Season One
TV Talk: Weeds
Top 10 TV Shows for 2006

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