Judge Brendan Babish watched Big Love with his wife, laying the groundwork for the Big Ask.
Our reviews of Big Love: The Complete Second Season (published January 2nd, 2008), Big Love: The Complete Third Season (published January 18th, 2010), Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 19th, 2011), and Big Love: The Complete Fifth Season (published December 6th, 2011) are also available.
Polygamy loves company.
HBO selected Big Love to fill the void in its schedule left by the beloved Six Feet Under, thereby creating huge expectations for this offbeat drama. Can this polygamous clan from Utah make everyone forget about the dysfunctional Fishers from Southern California?
The first season of Big Love contains 12 one-hour episodes spread out over five discs. These include:
Facts of the Case
Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, Titanic) is a successful entrepreneur who lives in suburban Utah with his three wives and seven children. The first wife, who ranks second only to Bill in the Henrickson hierarchy, is Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Waterworld), an even-tempered working woman who organizes the three households with a thankless efficiency. Nicolette (Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry), the second wife, is the most religiously fervent of the family, and also the daughter of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, Paris, Texas), a fundamentalist Mormon prophet. The third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, Walk the Line) is young and ditzy, and sometimes seems to have only married Bill because it looked fun. Each wife has her own household, and her own set of children, but the houses are all connected and the clan considers themselves one large family.
Of course, this arrangement causes plenty of friction. Bill is kept on a strict schedule for which wife he spends the night with, and the rigidity of this arrangement is often disputed. Barb is the only wife who works, and this causes tension with Nicolette, who believes a working mother is shirking her familial duties. And Margene, who is new to housekeeping and motherhood, flummoxes both sister wives with her cluttered house and unruly newborns.
But Bill's biggest headache comes from Roman, father of his second wife. Years earlier, Roman had invested in a mega-store Bill was constructing, and now they disagree over how much of the profits Roman is due. As one would imagine, financial disputes with religious prophets can get pretty nasty.
It's difficult to review an HBO series without taking into account—even subconsciously—the impossibly high standard its shows have set over the past decade. The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm are two of the best comedy series of all time. Entourage is currently one of the funniest shows on TV. The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Oz and Six Feet Under are all just about as good as any drama on network television. The shadow of Six Feet Under looms particularly large, as Big Love is taking its post-Sopranos time slot.
In my apartment complex there was a group of six or seven neighbors that would gather every Sunday night for the new episode of Six Feet Under. As the countdown to the show's finale progressed, no one missed this informal weekly get together. When the series finally ended, we all pledged to meet up again for the premiere of the much-anticipated Big Love. After the first episode, everyone agreed the show had promise. After the second episode we were still optimistic, but we started losing people. Attrition continued after the third, fourth and fifth episode, though no one ever complained about the show's quality. Every week the show seemed to maintain its promise but it just never seemed to provide any great dramatic grist for us to discuss afterwards.
But the sixth week the gatherings had ceased and I stopped watching as well. The consensus opinion was that Big Love was blandly good, but just not good enough to justify a regular get together. Unlike Six Feet Under, this was not a show you would be talking about with your co-workers on Monday morning.
However, after watching Big Love again on DVD, I gained a newfound appreciation for the series. By far its strongest attribute is its premise. When I first heard that HBO was producing a drama about a polygamous family (and with Chloë Sevigny for indie cred) I was on board. And the show takes great advantage of the absurd domestic and marital strife that occurs when one man has to be the head of three households. Early in the season we get a sense of this, as well as the show's ribald humor, when Bill begins taking Viagra to be able to adequately pleasure his wives. But there is a thin line between what is coarse and what is profane (perhaps no line at all?), and here lies the show's biggest misstep.
Bill Henrickson—played with an affecting genial earnestness by Paxton—was born and raised in a fundamentalist Mormon sect. He has taken on plural wives, and his extended family still lives on the cult's compound. Despite this, the behavior and attitude of the Henricksons seem pretty secular. Apart from the devout Nicolette, and the rare allusions to God, Bill's families seem about as religious as the Simpsons. It's a Catch-22: if the Henricksons took on too many religious affectations they would alienate HBO's secular viewers, but by sapping the family of religiosity, viewers curious about Mormon fundamentalists are going to be wholly disappointed. Shortly before the premiere of Big Love I read Jon Krakauer's fascinating Under the Banner of Heaven, a history of Mormon fundamentalism, and Big Love has done nothing to enhance my understanding of the sect.
What makes this especially rankling is that the show works best when exploring the rigors of polygamy and the fringe of the religion; its weakest storylines involve secular troubles that could be explored in just about any other domestic drama (such as credit card debt). And some of the humor, with jokes bordering on "take my wives, please" sophistication, seems inauthentic for people who are actually living that lifestyle. But when the show works—such as any storyline featuring Roman Grant—it provides unique and almost titillating entertainment. There is a great scene towards the end of the season when Bill confronts Roman and is attacked by 12 angry wives; this encapsulates the great promise of the show, and how well it works when it delivers.
Like most HBO dramas, the box set's inflated price tag will surely discourage many blind purchases. It is difficult to find where that extra money goes; my guess is the packaging, which is slick and sturdy. The only extras are a pair of commentary tracks, one with Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorne and another with the show's creators. I don't know if they had a few drinks beforehand, but Paxton and Tripplehorne have a great time talking about the show, and their enthusiasm is a little infectious. The only other extra is a featurette on the making of the opening credit sequence.
After re-watching Big Love on DVD I was shocked one morning to find myself asking co-workers if they had HBO, or what they thought about polygamy. This show can't help but be downgraded in the context of superior HBO programming, but, when taken on its own, it can be a bit bland (especially considering its unconventional premise), but definitely enjoyable. I wasn't planning on tuning in for season two, but now I'm actually looking forward to it. Let's hope I can get beyond the fifth episode this time.
Guilty of treading a bit too lightly into the religious aspects of the show, but solid writing and a strong cast has earned it a reprieve for a second season.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Cast and Creators on Two Episodes
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