Days of Our Wives

Three's company; four's a marriage

Big Love
HBO
Sundays at 9:00 P.M.

Here's how Big Love looks on paper: You've got Bill Paxton playing a harried polygamist in scenic Utah. He's illegally hitched to Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin--critically praised actors all, but not exactly crackling with A-list static. (Do you know your Ginnifer Goodwins from your Emily Deschanels, your Paxtons from your Pullmans?) Now picture windswept mountain vistas, a trio of homes in contrasting pastels, God-fearing children running willy-nilly, and a healthy dose of the Book of Mormon. Doesn't sound terribly sexy, does it? No firearms, no couture, no cocktail-of-the-week, no Cosa Nostra? Are we actually watching HBO?

Turns out Big Love is one of the most subversively exciting cable dramas in years. Paxton's Bill Henrickson is the most conflicted patriarch since Tony Soprano and the most relentless nude-scene-stealer since Samantha Jones. Seriously, Paxton's pleasantly bulbous ass deserves it's own credit; in the first three episodes, we've seen it undraped at least four times because, well, Bill has three wives to service. These frank sex scenes aren't gratuitous. Rather, by showing us Bill's Viagra-assisted, sometimes-reluctant diligence in the bedroom, the show hammers the point home: Bill is a man with many obligations.

Bill's "take my wives, please" exhaustion is occasionally played for wry humor, but the show never relies on what could quickly become a tired conceit. Rather, the emotional lives of the women take center stage. Tripplehorn plays Barb, Bill's first wife, closest confidant, and official household coordinator. A former "official Mormon" (the show carefully reminds us that polygamy is forbidden by the Church), Barb is outwardly serene but guards her favored status like a grizzly bear. Second wife Nicki (Sevigny) was raised on a polygamist compound and looks like it. But don't be fooled by her modest dresses and Laura Ingalls braid: Nicki is cunning and materialistic, the most paradoxically modern of the three wives.

Third wife Margene (Goodwin) is the outsider and a trophy of sorts: she's a sweet, manic young thing who quickly transitioned from babysitter to bride. Come to think of it, the wifely trio is weirdly evocative of the Brady Bunch hierarchy: The radiant eldest is secure in her primacy, the plain middle child gnashes her teeth, and the youngest one mugs for the camera in ringlets.

All three women have children with Bill, and though they reside in adjacent houses, the wives interact frequently, usually to coordinate meals, childcare, and Bill's intimacy schedule. However, they're hardly Bill's mute handmaidens. Barb works outside the home as a teacher, Nicki rebels by racking up credit card debt, and Margene... Well, Margene is a winningly inept housewife, despairing over dirty nappies, flirting with Barb's teenage son, and sacking out on Barb's couch like the kid she still is. The interplay between these three women--sometimes gossipy, occasionally generous, but always strained--lends complexity to the stories, a feminine roundness that defies every expectation.

As for poor Bill, his pressures aren't merely sexual. For one thing, he's forced to keep his polygamy a secret, pretending Margene and Nikki are merely tenants. Also, his father (Bruce Dern) is ailing, his retail business is expanding, and his creepy father-in-law Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the head of the compound from whence Bill and Nicki came, is trying to forcibly extort money from him. Scenes set at Roman's compound are far from idyllic. Roman is a capital-V villain, shamelessly squiring a new child bride (played by Daveigh Chase, a.k.a. "Samara" from The Ring).

There's obviously a contrast at play here: the "civil" polygamy at the Henrickson homestead(s) versus the cultlike atmosphere at Roman's Juniper Creek. Bill's children talk, play, and dress like anyone's kids, and his teenage daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) disapproves of plural marriages. On the compound, it's all Brigham and bloomers, and we sense that dissent would not go unpunished. Compared to this extremist lifestyle, Bill's complicated situation seems almost appealing and strangely sympathetic. Despite their quirks, we don't want to see this illegal family exposed to society and torn asunder. (The writers hint that Bill and his kin may be outed eventually--the new neighbors pose a threat, as do the older kids' loose lips.)

Big Love achieves a rare balance in many regards. It's explicit but not voyeuristic; it invites us to question Bill's morals but not deplore them. As viewers, we're never permitted to take sides for long. We want Bill to buy underdog Margene the new car she's begged for, yet wince at Barb's expression when the car arrives. Even Nicki has vulnerable moments: Her eyes flash with pain and rage every time she's slighted. (Even though polygamy has always been part of her life, she ironically seems the worst suited to it.) Watching this show, the viewer becomes Bill in a way, subtly shifting loyalties as the situation dictates, alternating between affection and annoyance. Big Love is far more than That Show With All the Wives.

 
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