It’s like one of those Twilight Zone epiphanies that arrives midway through an episode to thwart the lately begotten hopes and dreams of whatever poor fool thought he caught a lucky break or maybe had a good thing going. So get this. You’re living in Utah. You have a nice set-up in the suburbs. In fact, you have three of them, all in a row. You have a beautiful, devoted wife. In fact, you have three of them, all in a row. You’re a suburban polygamist living out the American Dream Supersized in a latter-day Canaan of lush green lawns, cool blue swimming pools, and wide well-paved roads crawling with plentiful herds of sports utility vehicles. You sleep with each of your alluring wives according to a nightly rotation. The best part is that you don’t even go to church: it’s like paradise sans the martyrdom; you get to have your cake and eat it too – all three delicious pieces every Sunday morning. But here comes the horrible catch. One evening, for no particular reason, you just can’t get it up anymore. (Cue gasps, sighs, gnashings of teeth.)
Such are the domestic headaches which befall Bill Henrickson, the small-business-owner-cum-biblical-patriarch who is at the center of HBO’s new polygamy-themed series Big Love. Henrickson has two home improvement stores, three houses, three cars, three wives, and seven children. Not to mention a troublesome past and a volatile future. Big Love is a show about the day-to-day doings, travails, and laughs of the Henrickson family and the homey ménage a quatre that is their radical experiment in living. I can pay this show no greater compliment that to say that it earns its place on the HBO lineup, the network responsible for The Wire and The Sopranos. In this turbulent world of sexual revolution, gay marriage, ubiquitous pornography, and epidemic divorce, perhaps we can all steady ourselves on the moral certitude that HBO will always make great television no matter what should come charging over the sociological horizon.
Written and created by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, Big Love features an all-star cast. Tom Hanks puts in an appearance as executive producer, and Henrickson himself is played by lovable sleaze Bill Paxton. Paxton is flanked by the connubial troika of first-wife Barb, a perfect Jeanne Tripplehorn, petulant second-wife Nikki, played by Chloe Sevigny, and his bubbly naïf of a third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Other notable characters include the lecherous and manipulative “prophet” Roman, well-played by Harry Dean Stanton, and the pretty yet chaste teenager Sarah Henrickson, played by Amanda Seyfried.
When most people hear the word polygamy, they probably envision some Ingres-esque retinue of voluptuous women lolling in luxury at the feet of a decadent sheikh. Or maybe they picture inbred hicks eking out their illiterate lives in those curious parts of America which make up for natural godforsakenness in native religiosity. While the former is an Orientalist caricature, the latter actually comes close to approximating life for those unlucky enough to inhabit the FLDS enclaves in Hillsdale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (not to be confused with mainstream Mormons, who outlawed polygamy many years ago, something HBO is careful to emphasize) believe that a man must have at least three wives in order to get into heaven; they believe that these wives “complete” him. In these isolated communities, girls as young as 12 are married to men four or five times their age, some of whom already have a whole remuda of women at their disposal. Young men, on the other hand, are frequently run out of town in order to preserve a gender ratio congenial to the lusts of the aged.
In fact, when Bill Henrickson was 14, his father took him out of Juniper Creek, the fictional polygamous community mired in the usual poverty and backwardness associated with fundamentalism, and left him to fend for himself in the middle of Salt Lake City. Put into a plight like that, he could have chosen alcohol and the slough of Despond, but instead went in for self-reliance and Horatio-Alger-style heroic capitalism. When the first show begins, Bill Henrickson has morphed from urchin to entrepreneur and is affluent enough to handle three mortgage payments, though not without strain. However, he must hide the secret of his family from nosy neighbors, ward off the occasional extortion attempt fielded by denizens of Juniper Creek in the know, continue to manage his thriving business, and – most importantly – take on the paramount task of preserving an always fragile intrafamilial peace. Witness the discord which results when he has sex one morning with Margene even though Nikki’s night (and, by extension, sexual ration) technically starts that day at 9 AM. Despite the occasional flare-up of marital tensions, all four clearly love one another and seem committed to this polygamy thing, for better or worse. Jeanne Tripplehorn deserves special plaudits for her pitch-perfect portrayal of Barb, the infinitely conscientious and caring first-wife. She is simply a queen, and I mean that in the non-gay sense.
Unfortunately for the sensationalistic appetite, the Henricksons cleave to neither stereotype of polygamy (hicks or sheiks). Perhaps what is prima facie surprising about this show is its surface boringness – the relentlessly wholesome character of the Henricksons’ daily life. Maybe the show is too wholesome; it’s weirdly, hyperreally wholesome. For instance, if you’ve ever seen any sitcom ever, you’re familiar with the usual breadwinner homecoming sequence – honey-I’m-home kiss-the-wife hug-the-child, and so on – but this only makes seeing it in triplicate all the more farcical when Bill Henrickson greets his long train of family members, giving out a million kisses and hugs and tailored salutations. Bill, Barb, Nikki, and Margene together fill out a pretty typical picture of bourgeois suburbia – albeit one whose spotless stucco exterior belies the explosive secret of polygamy within. In this sense, the show resembles Desperate Housewives or Weeds, two shows which play against the staid propriety of suburban culture while exploiting the tension borne of the necessity for unceasing semblance.
The intro is pretty indicative of the kind of nimble humor underwriting this show. While Henrickson and his wives surreally skate on top of what appears to be a giant globe – a delicate dance of harmonious gliding and the like – our ears are treated to the ethereal sounds of the Beach Boys classic “God Only Knows.” In it, Carl Wilson sings a tender song of gratitude and devotion to his best gal with the sweetness of a heartfelt prayer. The chorus-line repeats, “God only knows what I’d be without you.” The mode of address is conspicuously second-person: Carl Wilson is thanking you and you specifically, especially. But the intro to Big Love, by linking up the chorus with a shot of all three Hendrickson matrons skating by, implies that each round of the chorus is directed to a different you/wife, neatly figuring the complex unity of the Henrickson family-unit.
To claim this show tacitly endorses polygamy – a hysterical accusation which many soi-disant “culture warriors” and Traditional Marriage Templars will no doubt rush to throw at that vast, pervasive, and subtile engine of the Devil, Pop Culture – makes about as much sense as claiming The Wire endorses drugs or The Sopranos endorses organized crime. Yet on the other hand, neither is it the case that Big Love paints a dogmatically negative portrait of polygamy, nor is it the case that The Sopranos somehow constitutes a grand apologia of mafia life. The strength of all three shows lies in the vividness and complexity with which they depict real human beings thrust into strange situations who must still carry the full fardel of being human – that is to say, in the exhilarating words of Stan Brakhage, “love, death, sex, birth, and the search for God.” All things considered, one could do a lot worse than this show.
After Swede Levov’s first try at homemaking and living the American Pastoral went awry – if you remember, his daughter dabbled in terrorism and his wife in cuckoldry, he remarried and began a whole new family as if to blot away the past through sedulous labor, material accumulation, and heroic procreation. In some ways, I think this conceit of Levov’s gets at the peculiar Americanness of this show and its portrait of polygamy. Bill Henrickson is a polygamist pretending to be a normal suburbanite, but the real joke is that he’s more American than any of us. It’s the Jones who are not keeping up with him. He’s the Israelite; we’re the Philistines. The fixation on quantity for quantity’s sake and love of the pure scale of things, the idea of the immigrant reinventing himself in the new land, the consumerist logic of acquisition as accomplishment. Henrickson’s possession of three wives is ultimately only the reductio ad absurdum of a certain American ethic, and it’s not even that absurd. His family is just the American family Supersized. At one point in the show, Bill Paxton says something business-related which is truly frightening:
“If I had three wishes, it would be to be Wal-Mart, to be Wal-Mart, to be Wal-Mart.”
God help us all.