omewhere, tucked away on the hard drive of one of the designers who creates ads for HBO, there’s a billboard that nobody has ever seen. The top and bottom are lined with faces, vibrant color photographs of Ruth Fisher, Junior Soprano, so on. The remainder is black—rectangular, in the letterbox style that the channel so adores—but for some stark white lettering, underlined garishly by a faux-lipstick streak. Think something Carrie Bradshaw would put on the cover of her book.
“Family drama – WITH A TWIST!” it says.
Because even if HBO doesn’t outwardly acknowledge its shows’ tendencies to be family-centric (though never family-friendly), the trend is fairly apparent. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under’s Fishers are the two most notorious of the network, but even lesser-known programs are dominated with familial concerns. Take Carnivale—on the surface, a dustbowl allegory for the atomic age. But just beneath was a son searching the country for his father—the story which ultimately propelled both seasons. Even all three seasons of the least HBO-y show of the lot, The Wire, have prominently featured families, be they drug dealers or dock workers.
Even so, it was still surprising to hear late last year that HBO was developing a show based around a polygamist Mormon family. But months later and a few episodes in, Big Love appears to be far less shocking than anyone would have guessed. Or, at the very least, the shocks come where you’d least expect.
To wit: handsome 40-something hardware store chain owner Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is married to the insecure Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), catalog shopaholic Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and beleaguered first wife-turned-“bosslady” Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn). The women live, with their respective children, in three adjoining homes, which Bill rotates through on a day-to-day-to-day schedule. Of course, there’s the occasional spat between wives—who’s getting more attention, who’s getting more money—but for the most part, the Henricksons are just one very big, moderately happy family, that happen to be polygamists. If that doesn’t strike you as the outline for a particularly sustainable or meaty drama, it seems that HBO agrees.
Enter Bill’s recently poisoned father and lunatic mother; a “prophet” who is extorting money from Bill based on the loan which started Bill’s store; and of course Bill’s erectile dysfunction. The first two stem from Bill’s apparently complex background, which we’ve learned so far involves being kicked out of his family’s religious “compound” at age 14, and then borrowing money from Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the ruthless head of the compound and, perhaps not coincidentally, Nicki’s father. (The third problem, one has to imagine, stems from having three mortgages.)
But whether the subplots are all part of a larger plan or simply added excitement, it’s the way the show deals with them, through fine-tuned direction and intimate writing, which impresses. With only one Bill to go around, the Henricksons’ every interaction need to be at least somewhat substantive, and while there’s not an overt economy of words, there is much left to glances and lingering shots. (Windows and doorways play a large role in how the wives view each other, literally.) Though not always subtle, the clever editing at least manages to amuse—take, for example, Bill popping a blue pill and pouncing on top of Barb, as the camera quickly cuts to a phallic sprinkler popping out of the ground.
For all the strengths that Big Love finds in its writing and story, one only wishes the cast could handle their appointments with such aplomb. If Bill is supposed to seem likeable, it’s too early to know for sure. In some scenes, it’s hard to discern whether Paxton’s character is being blatantly disingenuous (like the false prophets whom he claims to detest) or whether he’s being honest and simply acting poorly. Sevigny’s character, too, seems rigid and wholly unsympathetic.
In fact, it’s the show’s youngest and oldest characters who breathe the most life into it. As 21-year old third wife Margene, Ginnifer Goodwin is pure, fragile, and still somewhat naïve, despite being involved in a relationship that some would view as depraved. In one scene, Margene finds Bill in flagrante in her bed with another of the wives, and instead of confronting them, hides crouching beneath a mantle with her fingers plugging her ears. Meanwhile, Harry Dean Stanton’s aged Roman is the devil in a cowboy hat and a bolo, menacing and impossible to turn away from.
Casting problems notwithstanding, the future seems wide open for Big Love. While the current problems facing the Henricksons seem to be ones with impending conclusions (poisoned dad, extortionists, etc.), with the amount of characters ably introduced in the opening two hours, storylines seem ripe to go any which way. The only question that remains is one for the audience: Is America ready to deal with a show about a semi-normal, loving polygamist family? To borrow a phrase from the Beach Boys song used in the opening credits: God only knows.
By: Chris Nelson
Published on: 2006-03-22
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