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 V.15 No.11 | March 16 - 22, 2006 

Idiot Box

“Big Love” on HBO

It was bigamy--it was big o' you, too!

HBO continues to push the envelope of its ratings-grabbing, attention-garnering Sunday night shows. Now that “The Sopranos” is back on the air and soaking up a record viewership, HBO has paired it with “Big Love,” a controversial new drama/comedy(ish) about a suburban polygamist with three (count 'em, three) wives.

Bill Paxton heads the show's ensemble cast as Bill Henrickson, a businessman running a chain of Utah-based hardware stores by day and coming home every night to his three spouses. Considering his wives are played by Jeanne Tripplehorn (Waterworld), Chlöe Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry) and Ginnifer Goodwin (Walk the Line), viewers are expected to think this guy has got it pretty sweet. But no. Instead of dealing with the tensions, emotions and financial obligations of one child-choked household, our boy Bill has got to deal with three of them. Plus, he's got to keep it all secret from his friends, neighbors and coworkers. Which is difficult when all three families live side-by-side in the suburbs. It's even up to Wife No. 1 (Tripplehorn) to work out Bill's bed-hopping schedule. (It wouldn't be HBO without the sex, now would it?) Is it any wonder this guy suffers from E.D.?

The odd thing about “Big Love”--from my perspective, anyway--is that there's no chance I would want to spend even a second with these fertile freaks in real life. It's like “Full House”--only without Uncle Jesse and Uncle Joey for comic relief. It's like Hell ... only with diapers and three mortgages. Which is, I guess, the point.

So far, Paxton's big-loving businessman is a bit of a cypher. Why exactly did he choose these three seemingly random women--and why hasn't he dumped them yet? The ladies are marginally more fleshed out. Sevigny is the most colorful, a shopping-addicted siren who spends her days envying the other wives' possessions. Goodwin is the youngest wife, unhappily battling post-partum depression and a crippling lack of self-esteem. Tripplehorn is the “boss lady,” a domestic diva no longer able to bear children thanks to a bout with cancer. It's all the melodrama of Wysteria Lane crammed into a single household.

Henrickson and his family are portrayed, of course, as members of a fringe Mormon cult. (The word “Mormon” is studiously avoided, perhaps to fend off criticism from the LDS church.) Series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer seem pretty knowledgeable about their Mormon culture. The show gets most interesting with a visit to Henrickson's hometown, a seedy rural compound lorded over by oily cult leader Harry Dean Stanton (who, in demanding a percentage of Henrickson's profits, is setting himself up as the show's Mormon Mafia leader).

The writing is sharp and the casting (particularly the cameos) is interesting. Still, it remains to be seen whether or not the Henricksons are as entertaining to visit as HBO's other dysfunctional families--the Sopranos, the Fishers and the Julii of “Rome.” ... Maybe, if somebody got whacked.

“Big Love” airs every Sunday night at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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