Being a cultural conservative is monotonous. Everything is in a perpetual state of going to hell. Two things can really break the routine. The first is when the slippery slope becomes a high-speed luge track.
Like now. In late 2004, amid a boiling gay-marriage debate, law professor Jonathan Turley argued the case for legalizing polygamy in a USA Today op-ed. But, he added:
[The] day of social acceptance will never come for polygamists. It is unlikely that any network is going to air The Polygamist Eye for the Monogamist Eye or add a polygamist twist to Everybody Loves Raymond.
In a few days, HBO will pass the crown of edgy, phenomenon programming to Big Love: an hour drama about Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), a suburban businessman in Salt Lake City, and his wife, his other wife, his other other wife (three, total), and kids (probably about six).
Big Love is an example of that rare second thing that can interrupt conservatives’ parade of sighs: a show that, if you think about it, does eat away at a pillar of society. But a show that you don’t think about like that–because it’s too good.
Like the Sopranos, the Henricksons are everyday people who are, simultaneously, about as different from HBO’s everyday viewers as they can be without growing additional eyes in the middle of their foreheads. Barb Henrickson (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is reaching for a life outside the home by substitute teaching. She’s the first wife, and she hates it when wife two, Nicki (Chlöe Sevigny), calls her “boss lady.” Nicki, a spoiled daddy’s girl, runs up impossible credit-card debts. Daddy, incidentally, is Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the whitebread godfather of a Mormon fundamentalist compound in the hills, who hovers over the family like a cloud of incipient violence. Wife three, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), is lonely. She wants to make friends with the neighbors. If she succeeds, however, the socially unacceptable cat will get out of the bag and the Henricksons will be destroyed.
In the middle of everything is Bill. He’s trying to open his second home-improvement mega-store. He’s trying to satisfy all three wives (episode two title: “Viagra Blue”). He’s trying to figure out who’s poisoning his unhinged, especially polygamist father. He’s trying to remember whose bed he’s sleeping in on any given night. He’s trying to listen to 16 voicemail messages while he’s driving. The pressure flattens the character out somewhat. There’s hardly time to notice.
Between its skilled cast members, the show has everything that makes a family drama work–sex, jealousy, secrets, in-laws–raised to the third power. Its sui generis hook is watching already thought-provoking characters navigate a social landscape as exotic as the surface of Mars. When Barb and Nicki and Margene sit down to hash out who gets Bill on what nights, it’s compelling in a way that doctors in an ER cannot be anymore. That the situation occasionally seems to perplex the characters as much as the audience only makes it better. Several episodes in, Nicki storms into the kitchen and growls at Margene, “Did you and Bill have relations before he brought you home for all of us to marry?”
“No! And I don’t think that’s any of your business,” shouts Margene back. Then melting in frustration, she wonders, “Is it?”
Is it? You do want to find out.
Creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Sheffer largely succeed in their goal of being assiduously nonjudgmental on the lifestyle. Perhaps at the expense of verisimilitude (perhaps, who has anything to compare it to?), they’ve made their polygamists toned, wealthy, and suburban, and detoured around the alienating theological curlicues that underlie their matrimonial choice. The seamy side is on full display too. Geriatric Roman has a 14 year-old girl as his “pre-marriage placement” companion (the terminology is legally advantageous). The teenage Henrickson kids regard their situation grudgingly, and a trail of cinematic breadcrumbs will lead regular watchers to the possibility that even Bill may not be as into “living the principle” as he seems.
There’s no need to parse dialogue and camera angles though. Big Love’s polygamy doesn’t seem surreally normal because Olsen and Sheffer tried to make it that way (if they have any obvious take, it’s that polygamy is a tremendous hassle). Polygamy seems innocuous because its polygamists are such well-written, well-acted characters (with Nicki / Chlöe Sevigny standing out). First and foremost, you like them. Bill, Barb, Nicki, Margene, all of them. You sympathize with them. You’re pulling for them to overcome their obstacles.
It’s kind of unnatural, then, to try and turn your mind around and start thinking of them in fire-and-brimstone terms. You just go with it. There may be things about the characters you don’t connect with, parts of them you don’t sympathize with. But if the characters are strong enough–and Big Love’s are–those elements recede, becoming quirks more than defects, and, really, afterthoughts. Polygamy: an afterthought.
People instinctually grasp the power of this quiet reaction. Reread Turley’s sentence. The “never” and “unlikely” cancel each other out, leaving the implicit equation that appearance on TV equals the acceptance of mainstream America. Sound surprising? Probably not.
This reaction is neither good nor bad. It just is, and is powerful. Those who have the most invested in Big Love’s reception are sensitive to it. Mary Batchelor, executive director of Principle Voices, a Fundamentalist Mormon organization that advocates for polygamy, tells NRO that the show has the ability to massage, for good or bad, how America feels about polygamists. She adds that interest in the series is running high among the tens of thousands of unscripted polygamists practicing throughout the West. The official Mormon church, which wants nothing to do with polygamy, is not enthused.
In the end, there are more sighs for cultural conservatives. Bad TV is painful. Then again, the better a show, the better its characters, the more gripping its story, the more effective it is at getting us to feel our way past social questions we might otherwise want to think about. This reaction could be stopped by just watching tepid, awful television; after a few hours of Big Love though, you’ll have a new appreciation for it..
And at least you’ll have something great to watch as everything falls apart.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York City.