HBO's 'Big Love': A Very Marry Band

Bill Paxton is the happily married married married man and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin and Chloe Sevigny his wifely trio.
Bill Paxton is the happily married married married man and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin and Chloe Sevigny his wifely trio. (By Doug Hyun -- Hbo Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

In the '50s, Americans were entertained -- to some degree, anyway -- by a secret-agent drama series called "I Led Three Lives." An accurately descriptive title for the adventurously outrageous HBO comedy-drama series premiering tomorrow night would be: "I Wed Three Wives." That's exactly what its hero, or antihero, Bill Henrickson, has done.

His life, a variation on an old Madison Avenue slogan, amounts to tripling his pleasure, tripling his fun. He's a member of a reputed American subculture that believes in and practices polygamy. And how.

Henrickson operates a chain of home-improvement stores. He also operates a chain of homes -- three of them, all near one another in the same desperate-housewifely neighborhood and each containing one of Bill's wives and an assortment of his children. The arrangement is concealed as much as possible from the outside world, but among the families themselves, there is an atmosphere of normalcy and candor, something the creators of the program, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer (and a quartet of executive producers that includes Tom Hanks), appear to admire.

Even after watching the first few episodes of "Big Love," it's not an easy task to figure out where the thing is going, but it is intriguing watching it go there. There are many signs that the happy little multiple marital setup is at risk of tumbling down, and even Henrickson's professional life -- he does his own commercials for his Home Plus warehouse-size, do-it-yourself megatorium -- is threatened.

Bill Paxton, who has compiled a very long string of outstanding if not -- for what it's worth -- Oscar-winning movie performances, plays busy-busy Billy boy, who is not only a husband to three wives but also a kind of public-relations man for each family, ever-ready to stomp out small fires wherever they might arise.

The wives are a study in contrasts, albeit sometimes subtle ones. It only makes sense that one of them be played by the ideally named (considering the premise) Jeanne Tripplehorn. She's Barb, red-haired and robust. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Margene, the youngest-looking and chubbiest, and -- perhaps most effectively among the trio -- Chloe Sevigny plays slinky Nicki. They not only get along, they have regular meetings to work out Bill's "schedule" -- which includes bedroom duties, as well as which breakfast table he visits on which day.

Earnestly attempting not to play favorites, Henrickson tells Margene, "I miss you guys all the time." We aren't told whether there was a triple-wedding ceremony at which Bill was asked, "Do you take these guys to be your unlawfully wedded wives?" The Henricksons are their own society as well as a family, but it's not as if they operate under a dark cloak of subterfuge, and HBO meticulously prefaces or follows each installment with the fun fact that about "20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States."

Although that statistic was gleaned from a study by the Utah and Arizona attorneys general's offices, HBO also points out that Mormons "officially" outlawed polygamy among their own in 1890. That apparently didn't quite wipe it from the face of the Earth, however.

For its part, the church is clearly not pleased with the prospect or the actuality of the series. In an unusually, even amusingly, sharply worded statement on its Web site, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemned the series as "essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds."

Some of the show's humor does seem kind of nourishing, however, or at least tasty. It finds considerable irony in the common experiences that this uncommon clan shares with other, "normal" families. That is also, as it happens, one of the continuing sources of amusement and amazement in "The Sopranos," the flat-out (and, of course, drop-dead) masterpiece that returns for a sixth season on HBO tomorrow night at 9 p.m., with "Big Love" following at 10. Will this new series hold on to a sizable quotient of the "Sopranos" audience? "Sopranos" is not only about to begin its final season, as mandated by series creator David Chase, but, as the first of the last episodes of this modern classic reveal, it looks as though the show will have an astounding year.

"Big Love" may be wise programming in that it ratchets the tension factor down several notches to a state approaching what might be called whimsy noir; a show that attempted to match the harrowing intensity of "The Sopranos" would be a poor choice to follow it, except for viewers who are emotional masochists (personally, I wouldn't mind if HBO followed each new "Sopranos" episode by repeating it, on the grounds that the series is so richly detailed you're bound to miss something on first viewing).

Anyway, all this aside, the cast of "Big Love" does a remarkably convincing job at putting over a remarkably outlandish premise. Henrickson's life will, clearly, become increasingly complicated as the weeks go by. Those phone calls in the middle of the night from his ne'er-do-well brother Joey are one indication.

Then there's the wildly troublesome variable of Henrickson's father and mother, an irritating pair of contrary cranks (even more so than most in-laws, the Henrickson wives may feel) who may be trying to kill each other. When we meet Dad (Bruce Dern), he is chock-full of arsenic and his shrill old shrew of a wife (Grace Zabriskie) claims not to know how it got there. They live in a strange polygamous compound that suggests a morning-after version of Woodstock. Perhaps the filmmakers are saying that this is where such good intentions can lead -- essentially to Habitat Junkyard, a muddy mess of a commune where the sloppiest hog would feel at home.

Henrickson struggles to maintain decorum despite the embarrassing presence of the compound -- to present a wholesome, happy side of polygamy as just another of modern society's ever-lengthening list of "alternative lifestyles." To the credit of the creators, "Big Love" does immerse you in this strange world and give you a palpable sense of what it might be like.

Beyond that, though, the series, at least so far, seems insufficiently compelling -- it's full of the kind of explicit sex, sex-talk and backside nudity (Paxton probably spent weeks at the gym preparing for the role) that let you know you're watching pay-cable but fails to present as absorbing a vision of this alter-world as one would like.

It does make you think twice -- perhaps three times -- about the folks next door, however, and the folks next door to them.

Big Love (60 minutes) debuts tomorrow night at 10 on HBO.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company