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''Big Love''

By RD Heldenfels Published: March 19, 2006

Two people can watch the same series for different reasons. ''House,'' for example, has the ongoing appeal of the title character, played by Hugh Laurie, and his personal demons. But people can also watch for the complicated medical mysteries, to piece together the information as well as the doctors on the show.

The people who make television know that viewers will bring varying agendas to a show. That's one reason you see such multiple stories in a single episode (a departure from the days when an hour-long drama was built around a single narrative). It also explains the large casts on some series, so that viewers who are not intrigued by one character may stick around to see what happens to a character they like better. (Consider ''Grey's Anatomy,'' which I watch even though I don't like Grey herself, or ''How I Met Your Mother,'' where the least interesting character is the one whose story is being told.)

''Big Love'' has some of that basic thinking, with an array of characters and several different stories being told. But my problem with the show is not that I prefer one story to another; it's that I really like one narrative thread, and actively dislike another. In the five episodes of the show I have watched, more than once I have fought the temptation to fast-forward through some scenes to get back to the characters I like. Unfortunately, the two are so intertwined that I have to keep track of one to understand everything going on with the other.

What I want more of: The polygamy story. The series, which premiered last Sunday on HBO, follows the large family of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), who has three wives -- Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). This is not a case of a secret life; Bill's three wives live in adjacent houses, with a common back yard, and to varying degrees help to take care of each other and their children. There are, for example, regular meetings to work out which night each wife gets to spend with Bill.

I was enthralled by the scene with one of those meetings. I also like the way the show describes the emotional and physical needs of all the wives. That's not just an issue for Bill; it's one each wife has to address in the context of two other wives. Each wife, for that matter, has issues which might challenge a single man-and-wife marriage. (Nicki in particular is a bundle of insecurities and flaws, including compulsive overspending.) And, when there are three wives, does seniority matter? Bill, meanwhile, has emotional needs of his own, and they are not always met by his having three wives.

The show is very skillful in making viewers think about what works in a marriage, and about the nature of love itself. I'm very curious about where the show will be going in the coming episodes; even at the end of five, the ''big love'' is moving ever closer to some big problems.

That said, I still have times when I am very impatient with the show. Most of those times involve the religious group that Bill has tried to extricate himself from, only to remain connected in by personal ties (Nicki is the daughter of the group's leader) and a financial conflict. In a series that has a lot of texture in the family saga, the other conflict feels piled on. It's too melodramatic for my taste, and a distraction from issues that I want to see more about.

So what do to? Well, I will probably keep watching ''Big Love'' for the parts I want, while hoping that the conflict will be resolved. Unfortunately, it seems to be escalating as the show goes on. I'll have to see if it becomes too dominant; I'm not sure how much I'm willing to sit through the bad parts just to get to the good ones.

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