So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing and you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some hidden gems you might not yet have seen. This week, Laura Macdougall has big love for Big Love.
Families, in real life, are rarely like those we see on television. You could argue this is never more so than in the case of Big Love, an American HBO drama that ran for five seasons in 2006-2011.
It stars Bill Paxton as Bill Henrickson, a fundamentalist Mormon living in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his three wives and various children in three adjoining houses. Living in the city, away from the Juniper Creek compound where Bill grew up, the Henricksons have to keep their family structure secret, because polygamy is illegal.
And yet, despite the fact that Big Love is often undeniably bizarre, particularly when depicting the crazy goings-on at Juniper Creek, it offers a portrait of love and relationships in unusual circumstances unlike any other we’ve seen on television and, in doing so, feels far more real and authentic. For all their dysfunction, the Henricksons seem refreshingly functional.
Understandably, Bill’s three very different wives (brilliantly played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) struggle with plural marriage, sharing not only their husband but also their lives and their children with two other women; all of this makes for undeniably gripping human drama.
Big Love is at its strongest when the “sister wives” are shown dealing with their own ambitions, their petty jealousies and rivalries and what or how much they choose to sacrifice for the good of their marriage(s) and family. It’s frequently clear that the marriages work because, in the most desperate times, the women always cleave together and support each other.
The rich drama explores the complexities of love and marriage (refusing to limit the idea of marriage as something heterosexual and monogamous) and the relationships between women and women, and women and men, in a male-dominated society. It also offers an interesting perspective on faith and religion and people’s relationship with God, which can be particularly difficult to maintain amid the distractions of 21st century society: Bill Henrickson and his wives share a fundamentalist faith, but their relationship with and conception of that faith is different and personal to them and often provided some of the show’s most interesting scenes.
A television series can be made great through the strength of the writing, and, for the first three seasons the writing of Big Love is exceptional. Although in its final seasons Big Love often crosses the line into melodrama, what frequently sets the show apart is that magical combination between brilliant writing and first-rate acting.
I’m still amazed that Bill Paxton was consistently overlooked for all the major acting awards for his portrayal of Bill Henrickson – a frustratingly flawed man. He has a righteousness that verges on hypocrisy, is frequently infuriating in his stubbornness and is definitely not an easy character to like, not least because of his insistence on patriarchal authority which repeatedly crushes his wives’ dreams. Yet somehow, Paxton makes him watchable and enables us to understand, even if only briefly, why these women continue to stand by him. In addition to the four lead actors, Big Love also has one of the strongest supporting casts in television history, including Amanda Seyfried (before Mamma Mia! fame), Sissy Spacek, Tina Majorino, Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Dern, Grace Zabriskie and Mireille Enos.
In Big Love’s balanced portrayal of plural marriage, many have seen an analogy with same-sex relationships, particularly in the show’s final season when Bill endures a public struggle to legitimise his family. One of the show’s strengths is undoubtedly the way it encourages us to look more kindly on those who – for many reasons – might lead lives that are different, but no less valid, than our own. But, irrespective of any political analogies which may or may not exist, it is in its portrayal of the complexities of human relationships, particularly those between women, in which Big Love excels.
Laura is a London-based writer, reviewer and editor with a focus on arts and culture, feminism, lifestyle and LGBT issues.