Yet last year, the famous humanist Stanley Fish wrote a puzzling op-ed on the New York Times "Opinionator" blog praising Big Love for its wholesome sentimentality. "They really like each other and they really are likeable," he said of the Henricksons, praising the "participatory democracy" through which they make family decisions. He closed by comparing them to the Waltons.
Fish's reading is naïve, but shared by many. Some critics seem to want Big Love to be an affirmation of the American family in all its messy pain and glory. Their aim is to draw a tidy, well-intentioned parallel between the Henricksons' marriage and those of other non-traditional unions: loving marriages come in all shapes and sizes, and we're all the same. But Fish and Co. have disregarded Big Love's very real critique of straight marriage and overlooked the show's true complexity.
Love and power
To see Big Love as a paean to the American family ignores the fact that Bill Henrickson is a blatant misogynist with the sex appeal of a boiled potato. He holds much of the power in his marriages, and the ends to which he wields that power are frequently sociopathic. Equally damning is the portrayal of Barb, Bill's long-suffering first wife. She has been martyred by her devotion to her marriage. Throughout the years, she has gone from put-upon matriarch to an unholy mix of battered wife and Gorgon. I want to tug on her curls until she socks Bill in the face and runs away.
Likewise, Fish forgot about Juniper Creek. The filthy urchins and patchy scrub grass of that netherworld lie at the threshold of the Henricksons' Pottery Barn existence, a gruesome reminder of what life would be like with more wives and less money. Juniper Creek gets as much airtime as the Henrickson's suburban compound. These worlds are always overlapping; characters bounce back and forth in every episode. Juniper Creek isn't outside, but of the Henricksons. Its point is not to show polygamy gone wrong, but to show polygamy without the pretense of suburban civility.
Just as Juniper Creek exaggerates the Henricksons, so do the Henricksons exaggerate us. In the real Utah, as in the rest of the United States, men still make more money than women do. Even the most evolved marriage can't help but internalize that power imbalance. The Henrickson households multiply the power imbalance intrinsic in one marriage by the power of three; Juniper Creek does it exponentially.
Big Love's genius is that it shows these workaday inequalities for the ugly, destructive things they really are. Each character must reckon with the perks and limitations of the strange system in which they operate, as must we all. I guess there's a little Lois in everyone.
Eugenia Williamson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
READ:Interview: Chloë Sevigny. By Camille Dodero.