BIG LOVE (Channel 5) reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Most imported US television adheres to some sort of definable genre expectation - forensic police procedural, teen-oriented soap opera - where the sorts of story on offer, the sorts of relationship between the characters are intended to comfort rather than challenge. The most interesting television drama being made - usually for the cable channels - are the shows which appear to adhere more closely to a mundane reality, but use the pretext of showing us small enclosed worlds as a vehicle for complexly eroticised melodrama.
Such shows are closely bound up with a personal vision; their creator/show-runner is at least as important as the stars. Ryan Murphy's Nip/Tuck , for example, with its almost entirely venal Miami plastic surgeons, is only in part an expose of an industry that exploits self-hatred and the cult of beauty - at some point in almost every episode, the surgeons turn to a new client and say, with flashing grins, 'What don't you like about youerself?'
Far more importantly, though, the show is an examination by the gay Murphy of the intensely romantic relationship between the show's two heterosexual male principal characters, Sean and Christian; at the climax of the third season, Christian is prepared to sacrifice his own right hand to save Sean's life. It is also about the way they, and the women who share their lives - Christian is the father of Sean's older child and Sean slept with Christian's fiancee - struggle towards some sort of ethical behaviour in the absence of any kind of moral compass. Joely Richardson, Dylan Walsh and Julian McMahon are particularly engaging in this enthusiastically tawdry show.
Nip/Tuck is relevant here - rather more so than, say, Alan Ball's mortician drama Six Feet Under- because Marc Olsen'sBig Love is in a sense its anti-type. Where Sean and Christian have no morals, but a surprising number of scruples, Big Love's Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) has morals enough for a small town, and a set of beliefs most people regard as utterly immoral. Bill and his three wives are part of Utah's small community of polygamists, members of small sects that split from the Mormons when the Church of Latterday Saints compromised on the issue in order to make their peace with the federal authorities.
It is a show then about the inhabitants of a wainscot society, who pass for normal in suburbia by constantly censoring their public behaviour and affection. Bill shares his nights equally between the adjacent houses inhabited by his wives Barb, Nicki and Margene and their various children, but at official events like the opening of his hardware stores, he is an orthodox family man with Barb at his side. This is an inherently unstable situation, held together by mutual affection, and constantly threatened by external forces and internal pressues.
The major threat is Nicki's father, the sect's Prophet, who ousted Bill's family from control a generation earlier, and with whom Bill is in financial dispute. Harry Dean Stanton is at once impressive and sleasy as the soft-spoken Roman - perhaps most so when he sings 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' at his grandson's birthday party, conveying implicit threats with his every glance. Later in the series, he has the youngest of his wives recite Emily Dickinson for him - Big Love can be quite prurient, but its most wonderfully perverse imaginings exude only a whiff of corrupt sensuality. Roman's confrontations with the solid obstinate Bill are almost primal in their sense of alpha males competing; this is acting quietly and unshowily charged with testosterone.
One of the strengths of the show is that it allows us to know the worst of what is imputed to these small sects - the forced marriage of young girls, the discarding of surplus wives and sons like unwanted kittens, - while allowing for the possibility that there is another side to the story. Bill wears patriarchal authority lightly, while taking Viagra to fulfil his marital obligations. His women are also married to each other, as sisters rather than lovers - Olsen is extraordinary on the way they balance jealousy and intimacy, at their best, and drift into bitchiness at their worst.
This is a show which neither endorses nor condemns polygamy as such; there is a gently teasing parable here about the row about gay marriage. Jeanne Tripplehorn is exquisitely weary as Barb, the original wife whose near-fatal illness prompted her husband's return to the church of his youth. She has not chosen polygamy so much as accepted it; in a real sense, she treats the younger co-wife Margene as an extra daughter as much as a spouse. The real sparks of irritation and mild sexual confusion are struck between her and Nicki (Chloe Sevigny); Nicki is a wonderful creation, Roman's spoiled princess, a spendaholic with a gift for mechanical tinkering. Sevigny has never been better than this - perhaps especially when in her glee over mistaken suspicions that Bill is taking a fourth wife she is like a child at Christmas. People are strange; the strengths of shows like Big Love lies in the sense of common humanity that lies beyond melodrama and exploitation.