Ťhere are a number of television shows which have been heralded as changing the landscape of television, including The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under and Mad Men. These shows were hallmarks of the “peak TV” era. But one series that is always perplexingly absent from any of these lists is Big Love, the underrated HBO series helmed by Mark V Olsen and his husband, Will Scheffer, which focuses on the lives of a closeted polygamist family living in Sandy, Utah in 21st century America, and which turns 15 今年.
Of all the taboo topics that pop up in great US television – sex, 死亡, 精神健康, drugs and murder – religion remains the most contentious. Big Love, which first hit our screens in 2006, deftly takes one of the most controversial aspects of religion – polygamy – and uses it to inspire comedy and despair in equal measure.
Big Love centres on the Mormon Henrickson family, including the family patriarch Bill Henrickson (played by the late Bill Paxton) and his three wives: his first wife, Barbara “Barb” Henrickson (an endearing Jeanne Tripplehorn); his second, the selfish Nicolette “Nicki” Grant (a mesmerising Chloë Sevigny), who maintains a belief in “the principle” of polygamy; and Margene “Marge” Heffman (Ginnifer Goodwin), the third and youngest wife who struggles with the responsibilities of motherhood and the tenets of Mormonism.
All four actors play their roles superbly, and the complex interplay between the characters provides endless comedic brilliance as the wives deal with jealousies and frustrations. Bill is, 大多数情况下, a sympathetic and admirable character, though his own hypocrisy and outdated philosophy tests our patience: “A man has to know his woman is his,” he says in one episode, while in another he labels the idea of a woman with multiple partners as “wrong”.
As Bill’s first wife, the resilient and loving Barb has assumed the role of matriarch, much to the chagrin of the manipulative Nicki, who believes in the principle of polygamy more than Barb does. Then there’s the naive and bubbly Marge, who seems to view polygamy as a kind of sorority. The four function on a rotating schedule in which Bill spends a certain number of nights each month with each wife and, 尽管 Mormonism dictates that the wives sublimate their jealousy for the greater good of growing their celestial family, tensions inevitably come to a head over who Bill loves the most, or who, 至少, is having the most sex. The show’s mix of familial absurdity and pathos makes it a true gem of US television.
It is also the supporting cast who make Big Love such a masterpiece. There is Nicki’s father, Roman Grant (played by the late, great Harry Dean Stanton), who is the self-proclaimed prophet of Juniper Creek, a run-down compound on which polygamist families live under Grant’s control, and which Barb sees as a cesspool. Living on the compound is Bill’s fiery mother, Lois (played brilliantly by Grace Zabriske), who frequently tries to kill her violent, domineering husband, Frank (Bruce Dern), who in turn frequently tries to kill his wife.
The series deals mostly with the family’s attempts to keep their polygamist lifestyle secret amid a flurry of anti-fundamentalist discourse. The Mormons in this fascinating slice of Americana view polygamy as an outdated and unsavoury practice that sullies their religion. Throughout the series, Bill struggles to defend his faith and love of his wives while disassociating himself from the sordid abuses committed under polygamy, as more and more underage girls are married off to older men.
Bill and his family were not always polygamists. He and Barb were married with three children before she became sick, and her illness led Bill to return to his faith. Nicki was sent by her father to be Barb’s carer, and the three formed an unlikely bond that culminated in plural marriage. While Barb is understandably conflicted, she has chosen to remain with Bill as his first wife, even after he falls for the babysitter (Margene). Their children, 同时, must contend with the polygamist lifestyle that includes two additional mothers and supplementary siblings. [object Window], Bill and Barb’s daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried in her most underrated role) finds herself alone in her rejection of polygamy, and often pines for her old life.
Like other “golden age” shows, there is a prevailing focus on familial power struggles and conflicting loyalties, here with a religious dimension. But it is not simply faith that Bill and his wives are struggling to hold on to but the notion of family itself. Bill believes his choices are for the good of his family, though much of the time he remains in the dark about exactly how his choices are affecting his wives and children. Debt, teenage pregnancy, infidelity and incest are among the many secrets kept from him. In an age when dysfunctional families were standard fare on US TV, Big Love takes it up a notch, making even The Sopranos seem conservative.
Big Love does not praise polygamy outright, though it certainly does ask us to sympathise with and even admire those who, willingly or not, are involved in alternate lifestyles or religions. It tests the limits of our capacity for understanding, and humanises those we take pleasure in judging.
Despite the various scandals, backstabbings and murders that crop up, Big Love maintains an upbeat disposition, with the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows accompanying the opening credits of each episode (for the first three seasons). That the show has been left off the radar of all television retrospectives is nothing short of blasphemous.