“Big Love”: The Newest Big Thing

 Cast of Big Love

These days, polygamy is all in the news.  From Anderson Cooper's newest obsession, to HBO's drama, Big Love, polygamy, as I read somewhere, is the new gay marriage.  PopMatters tries to analyze exactly what about the show keeps drawing the viewer in:

HBO's new drama Big Love is unique in that it plays to both the dissenter and the angry mob on the same subject. On one hand, the Henrickson family is modern and loving, with a separate house for each of the three wives and their children. They shop at the Gap, talk on the cell phone, and struggle to get their kids to the myriad meetings and practices that children have these days. Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), the patriarch of the clan, runs a successful chain of hardware stores that keeps the family moneyed to the point of being rather posh — this despite the daunting number of mouths to feed. They are just like any other family, but for the simple fact that there is one husband and three spouses.

However, it all gets a little shakier upon closer inspection. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, the 40-something first wife, exudes a dispassionate professionalism that chafes with younger second wife, Nicki's (Chloë Sevigny) brash and manipulative emotionalism. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the baby-sitter turned wife, oscillates between wanting to be respected as an adult and girlishly flirting with Barb's teenage son. The wives function by establishing rigid schedules and boundaries and viciously enforcing them with sloppy emotional outbursts. The spousal drama certainly doesn't make polygamy look desirable, but it does make it real…

From what I have seen of the show, the wives spend most of their time bickering with each other over who is "unfairly" getting too much of the husband's attention.  Barb, the senior wife, is basically "in charge", and gives advice to the younger wives.  She runs the homefront, approving of most financial decisions and childrearing issues. 

While Barb has the last word on most things, Margene is the one who spends the most time with the children (the ones who are too young for school).  Every time we see her, we have to fight the distracting vision of all of the kids running around her to pay attention to what she's saying.  Margene is the whiny one, always unsure of herself and her place in the family; she has good reason to feel this way, because from what has been shown so far, Margene appears to be nothing more than a babysitter "with benefits".

Barb and Margene frame the family, and show us how hard they work to try to keep things running smoothly in their home (even if it does appear to be chaotic in the three houses that share their one plot).  But looking at Nicki, the middle wife, it's difficult to figure out just what her purpose is.  The only thing she really contributes to the family's frenetic and confusing homelife is an eyeraising amount of debt (from her shopping addiction) and her manipulative behavior.  The show has been slowly revealing the reasons why the family is in its current situation, but for now, the viewer has to wonder just what Bill, the husband, saw in Nicki to make him want to make her his second wife.

Speaking of Bill, he seems to be spreading himself thin with his expanding hardware superstore business and his impossibly rigid schedule with his three wives and umpteen children.  In one scene, we see him popping viagara pills and looking exhausted, as he prepares to spend a scheduled night with one of his wives.   We know that he got kicked out of a polygamist community as a teen, and rejoined as an adult by marrying Nicki, but we don't know exactly why he wanted to rejoin this particular group (as opposed to finding another with similar practices). 

After watching a few episodes, the show looks entertaining enough.  And the fact that it's on HBO guarantees that it will garner more buzz for at least a few seasons.

"The Armchair Anthropologist: Three Ring Circus"  [PopMatters]


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