2007; Creators: Mark V. Olsen, Will Sheffer
With Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Harry Dean Stanton, Grace Zabriskie, Mary Kay Place, Matt Ross, Melora Walters, Daveigh Chase
Available Dec. 11, List Price $59.99
A middle-class family with a secret, Bill Hendrickson (Paxton) and his Utah brood have been called the white-bread Sopranos. Instead of the Mafia and murder, the Hendricksons are awash in polygamy Bill has three wives, Barb (Tripplehorn), Nicki (Sevigny) and Marjene (Goodwin) and murder. While Bill is in the city running a warehouse story with the evocative name Home Plus, parts of his extensively extended family are back in "the compound," a refuge for polygamous offshoots of the Mormon faith. The trial this year of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, that ended with his conviction on two counts of being an accomplice to rape (by compelling the wedding of a 14-year-old girl in his FLDS compound), kept Big Love in touch with real life, as does the candidacy of Mitt Romney, an apparently monogamous Mormon.
But the show doesn't need stories ripped from today's headlines. It's wonderfully dramatic fun on its own. Like The Sopranos, it sucks you in with the sensational, then hooks you on the domestic conflicts where a "personal conversation," will be, as Marjene says, "between a wife, a wife, a wife and their husband." In Big Love, the joke, the sweetness, is that Bill and his wives and their seven kids deeply love one another; they just operate under other rules (Bill sleeps with a different wife each night). This family is both ideal and dysfunctional: Father Knows Best and Dallas, with some fractured Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman comedy thrown in. And a lot of Twin Peaks weirdness. (Costars Place and Zabriskie were regulars on those last two shows.)
While not saying Big Love is better than The Sopranos, I do admire the forward propulsion and speed of the narrative. The program covers as much ground in one episode as other long-forms do in three or four, and doesn't take a six-show detour for a subordinate character's gay tryst. I also find the acting of a subtler, more subversive nature than was required of Tony and his crowd. Paxton: harried, defiant, superficially reasonable, essentially furtive. Tripplehorn's signature gesture is a shaking of the head, a kind of double-take with a smile, as if she's trying to compute the damage possible from some latest family revelation. Sevigny seizes attention whenever she's on screen; her pursed lips can express more resentment, cunning, disapproval, mischief, misery than any expletive-filled oration. Goodwin: her sweet smile keeps you guessing whether she's innocent or reckless, and whether this third wife has ambitions to rise in the uxorial hierarchy.
The show contrasts the "normal" suburban lives of the Hendricksens with the fundamentalist mode at the compound. Bill was forced out of there at 15 by the prophet Roman Grant (Stanton), who later ordered a hit on Bill and was himself the victim of a near-assassination. Even discounting murder attempts, the compound politics are fascinating. As Nicki's mother Adaleen (Place) says, "I'm sixth wife, but I might as well be first. I'm the one that told Roman he could be bigger than a clerk. And then I walked over the backs of five timid souls." And she's one of the sympathetic compounders. You'll meet Wanda the homicidal wife (Walters), and Rhonda the bad-seed teen bride (Chase), and the truly deranged Alby (Ross), whose glare could stop clocks. He's been trying to dope Roman into an endless sleep, so he can take over the compound.
You get the idea. Big Love's storylines are themselves polygamous, madly multiplying and craftily interweaving. If you're tempted by this description, look at the only extras on this DVD three brief "prequels" of Bill and his wives before the show's main story began then get Season One and this set. Proceed in order. Prepare to be addicted.