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Watching

Video Digest: March 14, 2006

Big questions about Big Love.

Big Love, a new HBO drama about polygamists in Utah, arrives at the right cultural moment. The topic of gay marriage has kept the American family—and what defines it—firmly on people’s agenda; the rise in open marriage, as reported by a thousand trend stories, has offered yet another challenge to monogamy’s smug superiority; and from Scientology to Islam, religion is enjoying the kind of watercooler debate usually reserved for the American Idol finale. HBO, having lost Six Feet Under and Sex in the City and now facing the end of The Sopranos, must be ecstatic to have another zeitgeist show on its marquee, one with fine actors practically begging for Emmy nods, including Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and the oddly alluring Chloë Sevigny. But Big Love probably won’t catch on like those other series. Despite its sensational subject matter, it’s a slow-burn of a character study. America may be as willing to embrace polygamists as they are mobsters and mortuary employees, but not if you ask them to be patient about it.

The show kicks off with something of a literal misfire: Bill Hendrickson (Paxton) can’t get it up. This is a quandary for any man, but particularly for one with three wives. The scene happens so quickly you’d be forgiven for missing it—a few flashes of coitus interruptus followed by Bill staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and his wife in bed, covering her naked body and her disappointment. The sequence sets up the show’s approach—subtle treatment of provocative topics—but it also tears down the pornographic male-fantasy hovering over the show’s subject matter: Hey, man, it’s hard out there for a polygamist, too.

Creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer want us to sympathize with Bill Hendrickson—he’s a hard-working businessman, trying to franchise his Lowe’s-style hardware store while managing family needs and the mortgage payments on three separate houses. As played by Paxton, he’s something of a cipher, likable but lost, puzzling over the mysteries of God and (even more difficult, perhaps) his wives. But if Bill Hendrickson really is an everyman, as the show would like us to think, then the question is: Why does he live like this? To answer this, Big Love takes us to the remote polygamist compound where Bill grew up, a dusty, frontier-mentality nightmare of hicks and Ruby Ridge stereotypes (the sequences concerning Bill’s mother and father are the show’s least successful, and least believable). Bill left the compound, and the life, and entered into a loving, conventional marriage with Barb (Tripplehorn)—until she fell sick with cancer and, buzzing with divine vision, Bill announced a new family plan: More wives.

So what kind of thinking female is game for such a strategy? Second-wife Nicki (Sevigny) grew up on the compound, daughter of the nefarious prophet (Harry Dean Stanton). Third-wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a perky little thing who needs a mother as much as a husband. The real head-scratcher is Barb, a strong-willed, nurturing woman working toward her teaching certificate. How and why a woman of Barb’s substance (and beauty) would agree to this arrangement may be the most confounding, and compelling, question the series can answer. In order for Big Love to succeed, it’s important we see ourselves in the Hendricksons, in their petty jealousies, squabbles, and insecurities. But it would be nice, too, if Big Love can give us real insight into the psychology of polygamy, rather than merely employing it as a quirky backdrop for universal truths.

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