Recently, a friend of mine let me borrow season one of HBO’s Big Love, a show about the Henricksons, a polygamist family living in suburban Salt Lake City. I (Erin) have devoured it at the same pace Ben eats trail mix: quickly and with no room for breath.
The show revolves around Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton); his three wives, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny, who Ben likes to flick off whenever she appears onscreen), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin — I don’t like how she spells her name); and his seven children. Bill owns three houses side-by-side-by-side in a Salt Lake City suburb, which are connected in the back by an open playground area with pool and large fence. Bill enters and exits the same house every day, but once inside, the wives and children intermingle as one large unit.
When I think about polygamy, images of creepy, isolated compounds and women dressed like Laura Ingles Wilder and men shouting angrily into Frontline/Dateline/60 Minutes cameras about going to you know where in a handbasket come to mind. What’s unusual about Big Love is that it portrays the Henricksons in all their polygamist glory as living outside both the fundamentalist LDS sects and the traditional LDS church. They are accepted by neither, and therefore doubly an other.
Bill’s visibility in the community — he owns two Homeplus stores (think Home Depot or Lowes), and is somewhat of a local hero fighting the corporate competition — gives the series its tension as he tries to keep his head afloat and live honorably without being found out. As Bill tries to move ahead with his current family, he is continually pulled back by his old one, still at Juniper Creek, a fundamentalist compound. In addition to his parents and brother, there is one other key player on the compound: Bill’s father-in-law Roman, the “one true prophet,” a sort of FDLS version of Tony Soprano who wants 15% of all of Bill’s business. Bill thinks this is unfair. Big trouble.
I commented to Ben whilst brushing my pearly some-shade-of-whites last night that I feel connected and involved with the Henrickson family. I think this is what HBO does best: It gets you to sympathize with very flawed characters, characters whose choices and lifestyles you may even disagree with completely. It’s also fascinating to view polygamy as a voyeur, even if its portrayal isn’t exactly accurate. Bill loves all of his wives and they love each other, but they’re still women who bicker about catty things and get jealous of one another and somehow make it work. (The three of them sit down every month to plan schedules — each wife gets Bill every third night — with the efficiency of a PTA meeting.) As you might imagine with three wives, Bill gets a lot of action, but it’s all captured in the spirit of marriage and doesn’t seem raunchy or superfluous.
There are great supporting characters as well: Bruce Dern (he of “It came with the frame” fame), Deb from Napoleon Dynamite, Otis from Kicking & Screaming as a cheerfully snoopy neighbor, Amanda Seyfried from Mean Girls, and an Emmylou Harris cameo in Season 2.
And finally, the opening sequence hooked me from the start. It is a beautifully constructed ice-dance with Bill and his wives set to “God Only Knows.” It’s just perfect in a big way.