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SUMMER TELEVISION | REVIEW

`Big Love's' wedded blitz

It takes polygamy to marry this many concepts.

June 09, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

AT first it seemed so fringe as to be lunatic. An hourlong drama about a Mormonish polygamous family living in Utah. Yeah, that has a big built-in demographic.

One season later, devoted fans can barely wait for the return of HBO's "Big Love" on Monday night. Far from fringe, "Big Love" has become an ur drama, with dark comedy lapping at the edges.

In following the byzantine machinations of the Henrickson clan as it straddles suburban America and the religious-cult compound of Juniper Creek, "Big Love" manages to blend virtually every TV genre available -- marriage dramedy, female-bonding comedy, mobster drama -- into something completely new.

Season 2 promises to be even better; the folks at HBO needn't worry about the death of "The Sopranos." The Henricksons have got their backs.

Season 1 opened predictably -- perhaps cynically? -- with the sex hook. Meet Bill Henrickson, a normal, home-store-chain-owning guy who happens to have three beautiful wives, all of whom want sex every night. (Or every third night, as they have a democratic system of husband-sharing.) Enter Viagra and all subsequent smirky scenarios.

With his ability to emote benign intensity, Bill Paxton takes the character far above the leering cartoon it might have been. Bill (Henrickson) has an unfortunate tendency toward self-satisfaction and sanctimony (especially given the patriarchal setup of the family), but Paxton makes it clear that, at bottom, this is a man struggling to do right by his family and his faith.

Bill also doesn't look like he's having nearly as much fun as one would imagine, considering he gets to bed Jeanne Tripplehorn (first wife Barb), Chloe Sevigny (second wife Nicki) and Ginnifer Goodwin (third wife Margene).

That is to say, he looks like he's actually married.

Once creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer let go of the sex-juggling act, "Big Love" really hit its mark: as a daringly smart analysis of marriage and family. "I did not marry for love," Nicki tells Barb early in Season 2. "How do you expect to get through the tough times with only love to fall back on?" It effortlessly captures the shifting politics that form women's relationships, the insularity of modern family life and general slipperiness of the American dream.

Add to this the costume drama that is Juniper Creek, where prophet Roman Grant (a pitch-perfect Harry Dean Stanton) rules like an Old Testament gangster, and you enter the realm of epic television.

The first season ended and the second season opens with Barb having been outed as polygamous by persons unknown just as she was about to accept a mother-of-the-year award. Undone by anger and shame, she questions her commitment to the marriage, wondering whether she can "keep on doing this."

It is a question all thinking members of any sort of marriage, or life partnership, ask themselves at one time or another. Because this is polygamy after all, it is Margene, not Bill, who tells Barb, "I don't think I can do this marriage without you." Still, "Big Love's" greatest strength is that in showcasing three marriages, it is able to, strand by strand, unravel the complexities of the institution itself.

It is made repeatedly clear that the Henricksons are not Mormons, that they are religious extremists, their faith based, loosely, on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Naturally, there is much prayer on "Big Love," and this seems, at first, disturbing, invasive in a way that sex scenes are not -- while many Americans pray during the course of their daily lives, this is rarely shown on television.

But in Season 2, issues of both faith and sex take a backseat to family politics and revenge. Barb's mini-breakdown solidifies the women's relationships -- Bill may have the final word on things in the Henrickson household, but he sometimes has a hard time getting that word in edgewise. "There are four of us in this marriage, Bill," Nicki informs him when he is not dealing with Barb to the other wives' satisfaction (and any joyful visions of multiple sex partners dancing in viewers' heads die an icy death).

Meanwhile, Bill's ambition not only to break free of the compound but also to have his revenge on Roman becomes a much stronger driving force than the Viagra follies, and that is a good thing. The snarled, weird and often dangerous nest of the compound is a visceral reminder of how many of us view our pasts, our families, as alien to our present selves.

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