For four seasons and five years, HBO's Big Love has dominated the edgy-soap-opera niche once inhabited by Six Feet Under. Having tweaked the well-worn family-drama genre to make room for Mormon fundamentalist polygamy, Big Love has become a funhouse mirror of contemporary American marriage. The show has succeeded in making the lives of a man, his three wives, and their myriad children appear almost normal.
On a recent visit home to Chicago, I sat at a neighborhood bar with three of my best girlfriends. As we sipped our drinks, I told them which sister wife they most reminded me of. Sensible Bekah was Barb, crafty Sarah was Nicki, and perky Kate was Margene. Rather than throw their drinks in my face, my friends welcomed these appellations, identifying with the sister wives as easily as they might identify with Carrie or Samantha.
The wives are so easy to relate to, in fact, that people often overlook the best part of the show: Lois Henrickson, the wizened, bug-eyed mother of patriarch Bill Henrickson. While praising Sensible, Crafty, and Perky, many miss sour, glorious Lois. Twin Peaks alumna Grace Zabriskie's performance is a revelation: whether she's wheedling, shaming someone, or lying outrageously, Lois always appears to be sucking a lemon. Her pursed lips and twitchy glower steal every scene, yet she never descends into caricature. For this, Zabriskie's empathic grotesquerie puts her in league with Peter Lorre.
Locked in an endless sadomasochistic battle with her ex-husband, Lois provides a modicum of comic relief, a harrowing cartoon with real pathos even as she endures graphic beatings. Torture aside, she is perhaps the only character on the show with any sense of irony. There's a fierce understanding and a mischievous glimmer behind her squinty eyes: like the viewer, she sees through the system she inhabits and can laugh at it from afar, no matter how horrible it might look up close.
The new Waltons?
Lois is a product of Juniper Creek, the Mormon fundamentalist compound that Bill has tired to leave behind, but just can't shake. Here, women are only as clever and as culpable as children, and the clapboard houses are so squalid that homelessness seems almost preferable. Even the big house occupied by the Prophet is an eyesore; the tawdry midcentury décor resembles an abandoned Elks lodge.
Juniper Creek houses murderers, crooked doctors, closet queers, countless garden-variety morons, and at least one fingernail-free, incest-oriented eugenicist. Its inhabitants are a Coney Island freak show and a welcome respite from the attractive supernatural beings that dominate popular culture. Sarah Palin notwithstanding, television is woefully bereft of credible monsters. Best of all are the Greens, lawless Mexico-based Mormons who make the Grants look like the Bouviers. The first time they appear, they are cast in a sickly green light and resemble extras from a David Lynch film, or the best possible casting choices for some future adaptation of Katherine Dunne's Geek Love.
Through her facial contortions, Zabriskie hints at the unfathomable nightmares Lois must have witnessed in that place with those people. Juniper Creek is so awful that it verges on the uncanny. It is clear that Lois had to twist herself in order to survive.