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