Tolstoy famously declared that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Big Love, HBO’s new domestic drama, triples the potential misery. The story of a polygamous household in Utah, it has a basic premise—one husband, three wives, seven children— that promises a feast of emotional friction rarely seen on TV, apart from HBO series like Deadwood and Six Feet Under. It took me a while to fall in love with those shows, to take in their formidable array of major and minor characters. Same with Big Love, which is in no hurry to unfurl its plotlines or push its charms. Give it a couple of episodes, though, and you’ll be snared.
Big Love‘s sharpest move? Making the viewer sympathize with husband Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), who comes across not as an exploitative patriarch but as a decent man stretched to the limit by his attempts to “do the right thing.” That includes polygamy, according to the cultish Juniper Creek compound where Bill grew up, even though orthodox Mormons distanced themselves from the practice more than a hundred years ago. Not only does Bill financially support three separate but conjoined households (a row of colonials on a swanky suburban street), he’s also got a grueling schedule of conjugal duties that requires a nightly dose of Viagra. Even worse, he has to contend with numerous in-laws, including Roman (played by the ever creepy Harry Dean Stanton), the devious prophet of the Juniper Creek sect.
Bill’s wives don’t exactly fit the polygamous ideal of sisterly love and doe-like obedience. The three women battle their own jealousy as they jostle for the family’s most limited resource: Bill. It’s an entertaining, never ending power struggle with a distinct pecking order. Heading the homemaker hierarchy is first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the most mature, educated, and “modern” of the three women; she works outside the home as a substitute teacher and accompanies Bill to public events. Second wife Nicki (Chlo Sevigny) resents her in-between status, constantly sniping at Barb (or “Boss Lady,” as Nicki dubs her) while pulling rank on third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Barely legal, Margene still acts like a kid and seems most herself when rassling with Barb’s boner-prone teenage son. The claustrophobic aura of self-containment and secrecy only adds to this pressure cooker of tension and rivalry. Since polygamy is illegal and any hint of perversity might sink Bill’s business, the family has to pass for normal. From the street, each house looks separate, but their backyards join to create an alternate moral reality.
In some ways Big Love belongs to the recent TV trend of suburban dramedies like Desperate Housewives and the short-lived Book of Daniel—themselves a partial return to the ’80s kitsch noir Americana of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. But in other respects it resembles a totally different series set in the suburban hinterland, The Sopranos, which serves as HBO’s Sunday-night lead-in for Big Love. Like our favorite mob drama, Big Love spikes garden-variety family tensions with skulduggery, corruption, and menace. Owner of a chain of home improvement stores, Bill is desperate to sever ties with Roman, the original investor, who is now demanding a tithe on all future franchises. With his bolo tie, parchment skin, and beady eyes, Harry Dean Stanton has never looked more sepulchral and sinister, as he declares, “There’s man’s law and there’s God’s law, and I think you know which side I’m on.”
Bill longs to escape the prophet’s tentacles, a situation further complicated by the fact that Nicki is Roman’s daughter. Maybe the marriage was part of Bill and Roman’s business transaction, the blood tie that sealed the deal. It’s hard to sympathize with Nicki as a pawn of the menfolk, though; Sevigny plays her as a sullen, manipulative creature with a vicious shopaholic streak that leads to terrifying credit card debt. But then she’s only taking after Roman, who dabbles in Glengarry Glen Ross–style real estate scams that target local retirees. The titanic clash between honest Bill and slimy Roman could easily play out across several seasons.
Big Love‘s menagerie of repellent characters risks turning off the viewer: Bill’s mom and dad, played by veteran freaks Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie, are wildly cantankerous, and Roman’s child bride seems spooky verging on psychotic. But through it all shines the decency of Bill and Barb, constantly in the process of making moral calculations. Intriguingly, the series intimates that Bill took up polygamy out of principle rather than active desire, and you sometimes sense that he’d be happier riding off into the sunset with Barb, leaving the younger wives in the dust. But instead he’s chosen to raise his kids (and the other wives) on this weird cusp—one foot in the polygamous, out-of-time society of Juniper Creek and one foot in the mainstream Mormon Utah of fast-food joints and iPods. Bill looks to religion for guidelines and clarity; instead he finds only fuzziness and confusion rising like groundwater.