Politics & Policy

Big Love

Don't worry about these polygamists.

You may think you’ll hate Big Love, HBO’s new family drama about Utah polygamists that premieres Sunday, but I’ll bet you won’t. I was certainly prejudiced against it, because I’ve grown irritable with that common libertarian response to the anti-gay marriage argument: So what, I sometimes hear, if legalized gay marriage leads to legalized polygamy? My answer is that legalized polygamy is legalized slavery (or at least official chattel status) for women and children, and I don’t see how you can support liberty and also support that.

Women and children aren’t the only ones who suffer in these radically polygamous extended families, though, because unlike in traditional societies, modern American polygamists don’t restrict harems to a few high-status men. But if all men are expected to have many wives, and the geezers in charge naturally fear vigorous upstart competition, then the whole set-up becomes an inherently cruel and unstable gerontocracy.

“That’s the way it is–young boys get run off and old men get all the pretty girls,” snaps the aging father of Big Love’s everymanish hero Bill, who as a teenager was ejected from the family compound and still resents it. Bill now tries to maintains a relatively normal, if secretive, life of middle-class polygamy, with three bland bedroom community homes connected by one backyard.

But the remarkably well-written and engrossing Big Love is no more in favor of polygamy than The Sopranos is in favor of mobsters. Instead, like its lead-in, the new series uses the dynamics of a bizarre but functioning suburban family to underscore tensions inherent in all families. The show opens with a disclaimer that the characters are most certainly not Mormons, who indeed should have no reason to be offended by the series. The Latter-Day Saints–seen by Big Love polygamists as the enemy–come off in this show as in comparison almost actual saints, squarely law-abiding and responsibly monogamous.

I quickly becamse absorbed in the misadventures of beleagured Bill (Bill Paxton), his head wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), manipulative second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and babyish caboose Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin)–who in the second episode is upset because Nicki lured the Viagra-popping Bill into sex in Margene’s bed, using Margene’s special pillow talk.

Nicki had been annoyed by Margene’s habit of screaming “like a tractor-trailer” during sex, which the youngest wife tearfully insists is not true. “Actually, Margie, it is,” sighs Barb during the wives’ morning meeting. “But Nicki!”

I don’t think the show glamorizes or even sanitizes polygamy, except that of course actual polygamists never look as fit and attractive as the Big Love family. When you see the real-life versions on talk shows, they all seem dumpy, pasty-faced and on the dole–like that ridiculous Tom Green, who got in legal trouble a few years ago for marrying five underage wives and failing to financially support his 29 children.

But faulting Big Love for that seems no fairer than faulting Reba, the long-running WB sitcom starring Reba McIntire as a divorced Texas soccer mom, for its sunny depiction of broken American families. As it happens, the Reba situation is a sort of fantasy take on sequential polygamy: Plucky Reba lives happily next door to her ex-husband and his loveble idiot of a second wife (the pitch-perfect Melissa Peterman), a dental hygienist who broke up Reba’s 20-year marriage. Meanwhile, the second wife lusts futiley after Reba’s off-and-on new boyfriend, the handsome plumber from Desperate Housewives.

Of course this hunky fantasy man prefers the older, flatter chested, and far more demanding Reba. Also of course, despite the strain of ex-spouses living right next door to each other, no one on this sitcom ever screams or says anything truly regrettable.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Reba, it’s funny and appealing, and even if you haven’t watched the show in months you can easily pick up the latest story thread. It’s the perfect thing to zone out to when you’re exhausted Friday night. But it sure does make divorce, which is a far more commoner American problem than polygamy, seem like fun.


Some more thoughts about Crash and its surprise Best Picture Oscar: In the Huffington Post this week, former California state Senator Tom Hayden wrote that Crash is a needed “reality check” to Los Angeles, a city “inherently unable to recognize its racial and economic fissures.” For example: “Los Angeles has become the center of the globalization of gangs through mass deportations of Latino immigrants.”

I’m kind of puzzled at that particular fissure, because how does massively deporting potential gang members increase L.A.’s position as a globalized gang center? Also, the only criminals in Crash are black or white, not Latino. I guess to wonder about any of that, though, means I’m in what Hayden would call our “classic tradition of denial.”

Meanwhile, James Bates, the Los Angeles Times’s smartest entertainment-industry columnist, explained that the political message behind Crash’s Best Picture Oscar is probably rather different from what the conventional wisdom assumes. Bates noted that the film not only featured many fine showcase roles for actors, the Academy’s largest voting block, but was shot entirely in Los Angeles rather than Canada.

And that reminds me: Crash’s vision of race relations in L.A. may seem silly and dated–which makes sense when you remember that writer/director Paul Haggis got the idea after his Porsche was carjacked in 1991, just before the Rodney King riots and O. J. Simpson trial brought on an intense period of racial navel-gazing. But another thing to remember is that Haggis himself is Canadian.

I’ve learned from experience with my relatives never to underestimate how disturbing L.A. can seem to those from north of the border. Once I innocently asked a visiting aunt and uncle if they’d had a nice time shopping at what I always thought was a pleasant mall in downtown L.A. “No!” they snapped. Why not? “We were the only white people.”

Leaving aside all that, though, sending a message against runaway production (and supporting job opportunities in your profession) strikes me as perfectly reasonable. Were I a Screen Actors Guild and Academy member, I might have voted for Crash too, if only for those reasons.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


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