Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Power of Big Love (Part One)

It’s just begun its fourth season but HBO’s Big Love, the best show on television, is also the most undeservedly unheralded show currently on the air. I’m not sure why the series, which deals in an entertainingly unique fashion with a polygamist family in Utah, is being virtually ignored by all most TV critics, except that they seem to run in packs, as in pack journalism, expending much ink on The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men and True Blood and comparatively, virtually ignoring Six Feet Under, Rescue Me, United States of Tara and Big Love. In other words, it’s nothing to do with quality but simply copy cats copying what everyone else is writing about. I’d be worried that this terrific show wasn’t garnering enough viewers, because they don’t know it’s even on (airing on The Movie Network in Canada), except that HBO, though not driven by ratings as much as network television, wouldn’t be keeping it on the air if someone wasn’t watching it, unless someone at the cable channel has a soft spot for it and is making sure it keeps on running. It helps, of course, that actor Tom Hanks is one of show’s executive producers but that alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the show on the air, I suspect, if the ratings for Big Love were really low.

For whatever reason, it’s still around and the viewers of Big Love are lucky, because from its uniformly stellar acting (and casting) to its uncommonly delicate and subtle writing to its pungent direction, it’s as good as TV ever gets. You might not imagine that it could be so good, because a show about a Mormon businessman, living in Salt Lake City, who has three wives, sounds, at first, like a bad joke. You know, a priest, a Rabbi and a polygamist walk into a bar… But Big Love takes its unlikely premise and utilizes it to comment tellingly and sharply about American life, but from an angle not usually seen in movies and television. In that respect, it’s most like HBO’s other overlooked but brilliant show, the late, lamented Six Feet Under, which focused on a family that ran a funeral home in California. From that vantage point, it examined the realities of death in a way no one ever had before. Big Love does the same with the facts of polygamy, a subject that usually gets the tabloid treatment on television, at least partially because of all its sleazy practitioners, who have been recently exposed in Bountiful, British Columbia, and in the United States. Big Love has its share of those, notably the residents of the rural Juniper Creek compound, where the shows titular ‘hero’ Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) was born and from where he was forced out at an early age. But Bill, despite his religious beliefs did not come to polygamy in the usual fashion and now that he has embraced it, is caught between the stereotypical polygamist, best personified by Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the compound’s ‘Prophet’, who, chillingly, is in the habit of forcing young girls to marry older men, among other crimes, American society at large, which neither understands nor accepts polygamy and the Mormon church, which doesn’t sanction it. (Though Mormonism no longer condones polygamy, the practice of marrying multiple women, the religion’s founder Joseph Smith certainly did.) Bill’s dilemma, and that of his wives, Barb (Jean Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), is how to navigate suburbia, while maintaining an highly atypical way of living, find a way to be a practicing Mormon, while deviating from a key component of current church mandate, and, most importantly, figure out how to assimilate into American life, without watering down the core tenets of their religion, not all of which involve polygamy.

All this sounds like Big Love endorses the practice of polygamy but it’s much more complex than that. While not shying away from the harsh truths of the practice, filtered through Roman, his conniving wife Adaleen (Mary Kay Place) and others, the show respects the Henricksons, its central characters, and sensitively showcases them as a strong nuclear family that essentially works, though the wives often squabble, have personal problems, and have to deal with their children, who go their own way. In other words, theirs is a family just like any family, only writ larger and twined in a different way from the norm. Big Love is also unique in American television, in its matter of fact and fair portrayal of religion, especially Mormonism, which is still regarded with suspicion by most mainstream churches. That’s not common practice in a medium that either dilutes core religious beliefs or tenets (reducing Christian belief to the angels of Touched by an Angel or the voices of Joan of Arcadia) or mocks them and casts religious Christians as villains. (I find it telling that the only church depicted in True Blood, the HBO series about vampires agitating for their civil rights in a changed America, is a negative one, dedicated to the destruction of the newly revealed bloodsuckers. The show never once concedes that their suspicions and hatred of the vampires might be understandable, considering that they’re preaching against undead creatures who must drink blood, human or the artificial variety from which the show gets its name, to survive. That’s a lot harder to accept than equal rights for blacks and gays, the operative comparison being made in the series but a faulty one in that inhuman is not the same as human in the social sphere.)

The Henricksons, by comparison, come by their devoutness honestly. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Big Love is watching how they manage to stay true to their beliefs when surrounded by so many non – polygamous Mormons while also facing up to the myriad temptations of permissive American life, which manifests itself even in conservative Utah. There are other virtues to be enumerated about the series which will be examined in tomorrow’s column.

--Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment