The HBO series Big Love may have started slow, but it recently ended its season with a bang, placing the show about a suburban Utah polygamist and his three wives into the honor roll of the cable channel's innovative and winning series. But what, you might ask, does the show have to do with politics?
Well, with the recent Republican push, thankfully failed, to try for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and all the wrong-wing talk about "family values," the answer is everything -- even though in a democracy with personal freedom written into the Constitution, family shouldn't be such a political issue. And one of the many merits of Big Love -- which, like Six Feet Under that preceded it, makes pungent commentary on American families and how we live in the modern age -- is how it presents an alternative view of family that is refracted to smash the usual assumptions.
Bill Henrickson, played by Bill Paxton, is your very typical upper middle-class American family man and business owner at first blush. Except that he happens to have three wives. And that he was thrown out of a Mormon splinter polygamist cult at age 16.
The Henricksons, with Bill's three wives and all the kids, is nonetheless a solid, good and rather devout American family -- a paragon of the best family values. That is if you don't take into account the fact that their polygamist lifestyle is both illegal and heretical to the current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) faith. And therein lies the contradiction that makes the family aspect of this show so pungent. What is so shocking, evil and wrong to the mainstream Mormons is, in the case of the Henrickson family, about as functional, secure and loving a family as one might find, at least if you discount the sometimes competitive dynamic between the wives. It's My Three Sons recast as My Three Wives.
Of course, that's hardly all to it. There's the polygamist cult that Henrickson still has family and financial ties to that weds underage women to older men and pursues questionable business activities, headed by "Prophet" Roman Grant, who the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton plays with a deliciously diabolical flair. And it presents yet another contrast and contradiction.
I won't go so far as to say that Big Love makes the argument that polygamy is okay if not even appealing, but is sure did woo this viewer to fall in love with the Henrickson brood and, as a red-blooded American man who loves women, feel a wee bit of envy of Bill Henrickson's plural marriage to three lovely and spirited women. Of course, that's partly the Hollywood gloss; what man with even the slightest heterosexual desire wouldn't find the characters played by such fetching and talented actresses as Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin a rather seductive notion? But another notable aspect of the show is how all three are complex characters with their flaws, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies but nonetheless good and highly appealing women any man who is the marrying sort might want to be hitched with, one if not all three? (And as much as they make polygamy quite attractive, I do know that developing a strong, lasting relationship work with one woman much less three is both rare and hard work indeed. But a man can dream ...)
And whatever the show may or may not say about how we live as Americans today and the controversial issue of polygamy, the bottom line is that it's simply good and engaging TV drama. Its charm begins with the very opening itself, set to "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys, likely the most gorgeous and touching contemporary pop love song ever recorded. And by the end of the season, just as Six Feet Under drew me into the Fisher family, Big Love made me care about the Henricksons.
So by the season ender, in which the Henrickson family came to the point where it is threatened with exposure, I was caught up in the drama (even if the dramatic device that brings them to the brink seemed a bit of a stretch). And I can't wait for the second season to arrive to see what might happen (though until then, thankfully HBO has another "family" of sorts to keep me entertained with the third season of Entourage).
Meanwhile, if there's any women like those on Big Love who think that plural marriage could be appealing, get in touch with this good but currently single guy. Because like I said, a man can dream, right?
Rob Patterson lives in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.