It in­spired con­tro­versy in the US, but a tan­ta­lis­ing new drama about polygamy is as en­light­en­ing as it is bizarre, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

PRO­MOTED ini­tially as a soap opera with a pruri­ent twist about a weirdo, con­trol- hun­gry polyg­a­mous sect, US pay- television net­work HBO’s Big Love turns out to be highly in­tel­li­gent, lit­er­ary sto­ry­telling. Its de­light­fully bizarre premise im­merses us in the par­al­lel moral uni­verse of an ex­tended fam­ily of mid­dle- class in­de­pen­dent Mor­mon fun­da­men­tal­ists.

Pref­aced with a state­ment that the Mor­mon church banned the prac­tice of polygamy in the 1890s and re­mains un­flinch­ingly op­posed to it, the show makes it ob­vi­ous they didn’t wipe it wrath­fully from the earth’s face.

De­fy­ing Mor­mon teach­ings, Bill Hen­drick­son, hard­work­ing busi­ness­man and prac­tis­ing po­lyg­a­mist, is bat­tling to sat­isfy the emo­tional, ro­man­tic and fi­nan­cial needs of his three wives, Barb ( Jeanne Trip­ple­horn), Nicki ( Chloe Se­vi­gny) and Mar­gene ( Gin­nifer Good­win), and their seven chil­dren, all of them en­sconced in their ad­join­ing three new homes in sub­ur­ban Salt Lake City, a sparkling, al­most eerily clean place, ori­ented around church and fam­ily.

In the first episode, we find an al­most burned­out Hen­drick­son bal­anc­ing his wives’ no­tun­rea­son­able emo­tional needs, an avalanche of bills and the open­ing of his new­est home­im­prove­ments store. A nice scene has the women il­lus­trat­ing their or­gan­i­sa­tional skills as they dis­cuss the nec­es­sary ros­ter, mind­ful of an­niver­saries and chil­dren’s birth­days. Th­ese lo­gis­tics are car­ried out in a spirit of strained open­ness and an in­creas­ingly stressed will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice.

‘‘ Some­times th­ese three days can seem like an eter­nity,’’ says third wife Mar­gene, the youngest and most hys­ter­i­cal, when her night comes around. Nicki, the sec­ond wife, spends her­self into credit- card debt as com­pen­sa­tion. ‘‘ Are you go­ing to wear your py­ja­mas to bed ev­ery night or just mine?’’ ques­tions Bar­bara, a ma­ture teacher, dur­ing her turn, as Bill mas­sages his tired feet.

They are sis­ter- wives and the emo­tional cen­tre­piece of the se­ries, en­gag­ing and sympa- thetic. Some nice hu­mour em­anates from the straight- faced com­bi­na­tion of sub­ur­ban bour­geois val­ues and the dis­qui­et­ing prac­tices of polygamy. Po­lyg­a­mists are just as mys­ti­fied about mar­riage as the rest of us.

But all are shaken when a se­ries of crises af­fect Bill’s par­ents, Franklin ( Bruce Dern) and Lois ( Grace Zabriskie), who live in a po­lyg­a­mist com­pound in rural Utah, an out­law fun­da­men­tal­ist com­mu­nity known as Ju­niper Creek, in which Bill was reared. He soon finds him­self in a hos­tile, po­ten­tially deadly dis­pute with one of his fa­thersin- law, cult pa­tri­arch Ro­man ( Harry Dean Stan­ton), who is shown proudly dis­play­ing his latest teenage wife.

What seemed like a witty me­di­a­tion on the com­plex­i­ties of plu­ral mar­riages sud­denly jolts us into the clan­des­tine re­al­ity of their more ex­treme forms, breed­ing grounds for aber­rant sex­u­al­ity, abu­sive men and child and wife abuse. Once again TV sub­ur­bia emerges as a space brim­ming with the ten­sions, anx­i­eties and ni­hilis­tic empti­ness of Amer­i­can life.

It’s easy to think that the fun­da­men­tal­ist com­pound de­fines the out­landish fringe of the US, a fright­en­ing perver­sion of the fash­ion­able no­tion of fam­ily val­ues, in the minds of the pro­gram’s creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer ( ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers with Tom Hanks).

Olsen has said the team has no agenda. ‘‘ There are three things we wanted to drama­tise: self in mar­riage, self in fam­ily and self in so­ci­ety’’, is his re­peated com­ment on the show’s un­der­ly­ing themes. ‘‘ What it is like to be marginalised and off the ta­ble of le­git­i­mate dis­cus­sion for who and what you are,’’ he says, link­ing his pre­oc­cu­pa­tions to those of the gay com­mu­nity 20 years ago. His char­ac­ters deal with the same kind of self- hate, en­trenched by a so­ci­ety call­ing them aber­rant.

When it aired in the US con­ser­va­tive crit­ics jumped on Big Love , ap­palled that Olsen and his gay friends ( he and Scheffer are part­ners) in­tended their show as a chal­lenge to the Amer­i­can way of think­ing about fam­ily, val­i­dat­ing slip­pery- slope fears by even pro­ject­ing the ul­ti­mate re­place­ment of mar­riage by an in­fin­itely flexible part­ner­ship sys­tem.

Scheffer replied that they were sim­ply try­ing ‘‘ to find the val­ues of fam­ily that are worth cel­e­brat­ing, sep­a­rate of who the peo­ple are and how they are do­ing it’’.

It’s hard to see how this show will change pub­lic opin­ion any more than Will & Grace made us all go out and buy old Bar­bra Streisand records. Big Love is hardly a sig­nif­i­cant break­through for polygamy. I just don’t be­lieve any bloke is go­ing to watch it and say, ‘‘ Jeez, it must be great hav­ing three wives.’’ It’s also hardly an en­ter­tain­ing fan­tasy for women; group mar­riage is no har­mo­nious sup­port sys­tem, more like slav­ery.

The writ­ing in this first episode is more sus­pense­ful and com­pelling than some Amer­i­can re­views sug­gested, with a nice bal­ance of wit and a kind of noirish nar­ra­tive style ( think Har­lan Coben nov­els). Darker as­pects of sex­ual ex­ploita­tion, jeal­ousy and the emo­tional aban­don­ment of chil­dren tautly bal­ance a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the hu­man val­ues of com­mit­ment, self- sac­ri­fice, for­give­ness and love.

I liked it enor­mously, es­pe­cially the tan­ta­lis­ingly strange sit­u­a­tion with its oddly com­pas­sion­ate char­ac­ters.

And while the show is not di­rectly about Mor­mons but, rather, about a splin­ter group re­tain­ing as­pects of their prac­tices, I en­joyed glimpses of their lives. There are the com­mon phrases such as ‘‘ for all time and eter­nity’’; and ex­cla­ma­tions such as ‘‘ Oh, my heck’’ sound pos­i­tively sexy when ut­tered by the well- named ( given the cir­cum­stances) Trip­ple­horn.

The cast — mainly ac­tors who haven’t done TV be­fore — is con­vinc­ing, even if they look noth­ing like the scungy po­lyg­a­mists we see on Jerry Springer . They all do that kind of dead­pan, con­cen­trated filmic style of act­ing that re­sults in a care­fully stylised nat­u­ral­ism, es­pe­cially Se­vi­gny, who knows how to use her quiet eyes.

Pax­ton, a fine film ac­tor ( Apollo 13 , Aliens ), is en­gag­ing as a trou­bled ev­ery­man con­stantly pulled back into his fate, his world heavy on his bony shoul­ders. And per­pet­u­ally hag­gard Stan­ton is in great men­ac­ing form. ‘‘ There’s man’s law and there’s God’s law,’’ he mut­ters. ‘‘ I think you know what side I’m on.’’

In a sharply worded state­ment on its web­site, 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’’.

Have to watch that show, surely.

Big Love, SBS at 8.30pm, Sun­day.

Un­der the ta­ble: Bill Pax­ton stars as the po­lyg­a­mist pa­tri­arch of a US Mor­mon fam­ily in the new SBS drama Big Love

Sep­a­rate wives: Bill Pax­ton and Jeanne Trip­ple­horn

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