A drama show about a polygamous Mormon family may not sound like TV gold, but Big Love is far better than you’d think
American cable network HBO rarely makes turkeys, but its best shows, such as The Wire, are often difficult to get into. So it was no surprise that the 2006 debut of Big Love left many cold. The plot moved at a snail’s pace, the actors seemed uncomfortable and, well, a fundamentalist Mormon with three wives and a slew of kids is kind of an odd subject for a TV show. All this despite boasting some established Hollywood names: Jeanne Tripplehorn (Waterworld, Basic Instinct) as first wife Barbara Henrickson; Harry Dean Stanton (we’re sure you’ll recognise him – Stanton is one of Hollywood’s most ubiquitous character actors) as Machiavellian compound leader Roman Grant; and Bill Paxton (who has the distinction of being the only actor to be killed by Alien, Predator and Terminator) as Bill Henrickson, the unenviable patriarch.
After a rocky start, things started to improve: the actors became more familiar with their roles, the strangeness of the situation became familiar and the show itself began to develop. Towards the end of the first season it had become a true drama. By the end of the second it had the same kind of lurking menace as the early seasons of Desperate Housewives, and by the third season it was on a par with The Sopranos. Rock-solid writing explored the difficulties of maintaining an illegal polygamous household in modern America, as well as the political and social intrigue within Mormon circles, with families feuding – and sometimes murdering – for control of the community.
The improvement was noted by America’s award bodies: Big Love’s third season was nominated for Outstanding Series at both the Emmys and the Golden Globes, while Chloë Sevigny (who plays second wife Nicki Grant) won a deserved Golden Globe for best supporting actress. Some viewers doubtless felt they were owed an award for Best Patience With a Drama Series, too.
As the fourth season starts, we find the Henricksons – all 11 of the immediate family, and the countless others beyond – where we expect: in turmoil. Bill is launching an ambitious plan to run for public office, keeping his three marriages secret in the process. With this distraction – and his brother on the run for murder, his estranged fourth wife, Ana, announcing she is pregnant, and so on and so forth – he has little time to manage the new family casino. Instead that job falls to Barbara, whose on-site work with the Native American community proves her to be as culturally sensitive as a minstrel show.
Elsewhere, Roman’s daughter, Nicki, is still having to deal with her transgressions from the previous season; Alby, her brother, becomes increasingly manic, and Lois, Bill’s mother and arguably the star of the whole thing, embarks on perhaps Big Love’s most outlandish caper to date. This may sound rather baffling if you’re not a fan, but we’d suggest giving it a try anyway – and if you still have trouble, use Dubai’s summer heat as an excuse to catch up on the box sets. But you’d better hurry – HBO has already commissioned a fifth series.
Catching up on the love
Previously, on Big Love…
Season one Bill finds himself under pressure from all angles: his wives don’t get on, he wants to keep his marriages a secret in case it affects his hardware business, and churchman Roman Grant wants a bigger cut of Bill’s earnings.
Season two The battle between Bill and Roman heats up, with potentially fatal consequences, while Bill’s family become pawns in someone else’s game. Bill’s wives continue to vie for power, while he falls for a Serbian waitress who may become his fourth wife.
Season three Roman’s trial leads to more intrigue as witnesses are exposed and intimidated. His attempts to maintain his power result in death and carnage, ultimately leading to his downfall – aided by new leader Alby. At the end of the series, Bill announces that he will open his own church.