God's law

HBO’s lighthearted look at polygamy
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  March 10, 2006

THE PRINCIPLE: Big Love's funhouse-mirror version of the average suburban marriage is the best "rebel soap" to come along since Tony and Company.Besides its other contributions to pop culture, The Sopranos spawned a prime-time genre that might be called the “suburban-rebel soap.” Tony Soprano and his family maintain a façade of suburban conformity. But inside their New Jersey McMansion, the Sopranos are not like everybody else. And isn’t that what we would all like to believe about ourselves?

The Sopranos encouraged us to identify with a mobster who yearned to break free of the daily grind. HBO continued the suburban-rebel formula in the American Gothic soap Six Feet Under. Showtime’s Weeds (pot-dealing suburban mom) appropriated the formula; ABC’s Desperate Housewives tarted it up. But HBO’s latest suburban-rebel soap, Big Love (premiering this Sunday, March 12, at 10 pm), is the most devilishly subversive, addictive contribution to the genre since the adventures of Tony and company.

The rebel hero of Big Love, fortysomething, clean-cut Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), is a polygamist living a Mormon version of the American Dream in sparkling suburban Salt Lake City. The Latter Day Saints outlawed polygamy in 1890; it’s now punishable by excommunication. But according to estimates by law-enforcement agencies in Utah and Arizona, 40,000 people still practice it in the United States.

Bill and his family — three wives, seven children — belong to a secret sect that still upholds “the Principle,” as its members call plural marriage. Bill uses interconnected backyards to move among his three households without attracting the attention of neighbors who might rat him out to the church.

Big Love (which was executive-produced by Tom Hanks) is neither Six Feet Under–self-conscious nor Desperate Housewives–shrill. It’s thoughtful, sexy, quietly funny, and deftly performed. Like The Sopranos, it doesn’t treat its characters like freaks, but it still satisfies our curiosity about secret societies. And it uses this atypical yet strangely recognizable family to reflect some truths about our own overburdened, stressed-out lives.

For one thing, owning a home and raising kids is expensive, and breadwinner Bill is on edge trying to keep his chain of home-improvement stores afloat. Then there are the usual daily crises of parenthood. And with all that to worry about, who can blame Bill for his flagging sexual potency — especially with three wives to satisfy? If Big Love is a funhouse-mirror version of the average suburban marriage, then the wives are one woman refracted in triplicate. Barb (a luminous Jeanne Tripplehorn) is the original partner, for whom Bill seems to have the deepest feelings. Calm, capable, she wields the most power among the “sister wives.” Thirtysomething Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) is demanding, snotty, and a dangerous shopaholic. Curvy, under-educated Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who’s barely in her 20s, is childlike in her need for love and approval.

And then there’s creepy Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, vampiric as ever), the patriarch of the fundamentalist Juniper Creek polygamy commune and Nicki’s father. Roman staked Bill when he opened his first store and now routinely shows up to shake him down. When Bill resists, Roman smugly lectures him: “Listen to me, son, carefully. There is man’s law and there is God’s law. I think you know which side I’m on.”

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