Polygamy for Dummies

Illustration by Jason GnewikowPhoto: Ron Batzdorff/Courtesy of HBO

When the Mormon Church went ballistic in anticipation of Big Love, a new dramatic series about middle-class polygamists in the Salt Lake City suburbs, nobody could have been more pleased than HBO. Not only did the protests get publicity, but so will the disclaimer now attached to the premiere episode advising us that, although there may be as many as 40,000 multiple-spousers in the United States, the Mormon Church “officially banned the practice of polygamy in 1890.” Such a disclaimer is almost as good as an “R” rating.

Personally, I’d have preferred a straight-up series about nineteenth-century Mormons—a gaudy story by itself. Joseph Smith, son of an itinerant ginseng merchant and great-great-grandson of a Salem witch-hunter, dreams a Bollywood spectacular of lost tribes, golden plates, and sacred stones; dictates off the top of his head a 275,000-word book of revelation; ordains his own apostles in a fertility-worshipping mystery cult; and leaves behind 50 wives when he is defenestrated in 1844 by vigilantes in Carthage, Illinois. After which it’s up to Brigham Young—part Cromwell, part Moses—to lead his flock on a Transvaal voortrek from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Great Salt Lake. What could be more quintessentially American than this club sandwich of sacred and profane, this bowl of mixed religious nuts?

Big Love is less thrilling. When Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) isn’t in his office at his Wal-Mart-ish home-improvement store or in the woods praying to Jesus and shooting a wolf, he rotates among three wives and seven children in separate but contiguous households around a single swimming pool (which really should be fenced). The oldest of these wives, and the only real adult, is Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a substitute teacher. The most glamorous, neurotic, conniving, and exasperating is Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), a shopaholic with a daddy problem. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the youngest and most hysterical, a baby with babies of her own.

Think of Bill as the Good Polygamist. We root for him as if for a sincere dimwit, whose problems aren’t entirely of his own making but whose analytic powers are so negligible you’d really rather he didn’t breed. The Bad Polygamist is Nicki’s father, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), known on his own militarized compound as the Prophet. Whether or not Bill’s mother (Grace Zabriskie) poisons Bill’s father (Bruce Dern), or Nicki’s relationship with patriarchy verges on incest, or a man can cheat on one wife with another, Big Love will ultimately pit the Prophet against Home Improvement. What’s at stake are property rights, to women and everything else.

Perhaps not so oddly, with Tom Hanks as an executive producer, the first five hours feel more soapy than salacious. A nudge-wink subtext keeps suggesting that polygamists are as well meaning and as mystified as the rest of us, or like gays who can’t help it and deserve privacy, or maybe vampires hiding out till the sun goes down—anyway, doing their best to balance psychic budgets. So what we get, instead of cult behavior, is that craziest of social units, the nuclear and extended family. But what we also get—praise the Lord and pass the remote—is hour after hour of actors as spellbinding as Sevigny.

Speaking of families and cults, there is no way to talk about the first few episodes of the final season of The Sopranos without mentioning at least a few particulars about beatings and betrayals—something HBO is quite adamant we don’t do here. Suffice to say, what’s ultimately going on is a wild contemplation of final things. It’s End Time for songbirds. Rather than such earlier animisms as the wild duck or brown bear, Tony feels a Native American wind. The trouble with the final season so far is that he’s still asking the same questions so many seasons later that took him to Dr. Melfi in the first place. His mother doesn’t love him any more now that she’s dead than she did when she wasn’t. And still the best he can come up with by way of a categorical imperative is this: “Truth be told, there’s enough garbage for everybody.”

Big Love
HBO. Sundays, 10 p.m. Premieres March 12.

The Sopranos
HBO. Sundays, 9 p.m. Season Premiere March 12.

Polygamy for Dummies