Monday, July 10, 2006

TV review: Big Love

They are one big happy family – Bill Hendrickson, his three wives (Barb, Nicki and Margene) and their seven (so far) children. They live in three houses on a pleasant suburban street. They pray together and look for life as family in this world and the next.

HBO’s series Big Love focuses on this polygamist family. They come from a Mormon fundamentalist background, but it needs to be noted that they are in no way mainstream Mormons. The Mormons banned polygamy more than a century ago. Still, though, there continue to be those who believe that the principle of plural marriage is a valid and proper form of marriage.

There are estimates of 20,000 to 40,000 people practicing polygamy in the U.S. -- many of them hidden away in polygamist communes where abuse is rampant especially aimed at young girls and women.

The Hendricksons are not a part of such a community, but they do have ties. Bill was thrown out of such a community as a teenager and his parents and brother still live there. Nicki, his second wife, is the daughter of the “Prophet” who leads the commune. Those ties create a great deal of the turmoil that plays out in the life of the Hendrickson family.

Big Love puts a lovable face on plural marriage. In many ways this looks like a typical suburban family. We sense a real bond between Bill and all of the sister-wives. They each have their flaws, but they also balance each other in other ways.

That is not to say that all is rosy in this family. All families have their problems, but they are multiplied when you have this many relationships. There are jealousies and secrets and insecurities that have the potential to do serious harm. There are also storylines about the older children, who remember when Bill and Barb were a monogamist family. These children are getting old enough to consider if they want to follow life according to the Principle.

There are two interrelated plotlines in the show – one dealing with the family dynamics, the other dealing with Bill’s business relationship with Roman Grant, the Prophet of the Juniper Creek polygamist compound and father of Bill’s second wife, Nicki. Roman helped finance Bill’s store when he was getting started. Now Bill wants to severe that relationship. There is bad blood between Bill’s extended family and Roman, who may have usurped his current standing from Bill’s grandfather. We’re never sure if the marriage to Nicki is one of love, or a part of the business deal between these two. Week after week, the battle between Bill and Roman escalates.

Even though the Hendricksons are a lovable polygamist family, the show does not ignore the darker side of polygamy. Because they are still in contact with the compound, we learn how things work there. Roman and his son can evict people from their homes on a whim or as discipline for going against them. Wives can be discarded by husbands or reassigned by Roman. We also see Roman’s newest bride-in-waiting, Rhonda, only fourteen, but soon to be married to the most powerful man in her world. She is spoiled, but also very naïve. All she really knows are the lies that are told in the compound. She has no idea of what the outside world has to offer her.

Big Love is perhaps the most overtly religious show on television. We often see and hear the family praying, not just over meals, but over the big issues in their lives. Although they don’t take part in the Mormon church (since their marriage is forbidden there), they still hold to the basic Mormon tenets. Bill and Barb’s son Ben is going through religious training, and struggling to lead a good life according to Mormon beliefs.

Through the first season of the series, we get a few bits and pieces of the back story. We learn that Bill was expelled from the compound when a teenager and has built is life from having nothing. We hear just a bit about his grandfather, a former Prophet. Bill and Barb were married about ten years before they chose to expand to a plural marriage, and we are never sure Barb really wanted to, or why, knowing the problems, Bill wanted to do this. Is Nicki just a business deal? Does Margene really fit in this family, when she is only a few years older than the oldest children?

Through nearly the whole season, we know what most of the world around the Hendricksons do not know. They have been hiding their plural marriage. This adds to the stress of the marriage. Only Barb is known publicly as Bill’s wife. The others are always in the background. In one of the best episodes of season one, “A Barbeque for Betty” (written in part by Jill and Karen Sprecher who wrote 13 Conversations about One Thing) the central theme is about lies – lies that the wives have kept from Bill, lies that another polygamist’s newest wife has told.

Toward the end of that episode, Bill’s daughter Sarah tells him that she, too, has lied. She hasn’t told him about a father-daughter pancake breakfast because she hates seeing him have to lie about his family. Everything about their life is built on a series of lies. They are a family, but they cannot be seen as a family.

When I started watching the series, it was a week to week experiment. I really wasn’t sure it would draw me in. Each week could have been the last time I watched. But something about it kept me watching the next episode. It certainly isn’t the quality of some of HBO’s original programming, such as Six Feet Under, Carnivale or The Sopranos, but there is enough serious consideration given to the issues surrounding family life and the way religion impacts our daily lives to make Big Love worth taking a look at – and then maybe the next episode – and the next.

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