Cable television loves nothing more than pushing the envelope , but HBO went a few extra steps when it created Big Love in 2006.
Just who wants to watch the travails of a polygamist and his three doting wives?
But Big Love proved difficult to push aside based on moral repulsion alone, and the show’s third season debut, at 9 p.m. EST Sunday, offers more of the same dramatic rewards.
Sex. Religion. Intolerance. Acceptance. It’s all here, and the new episodes blend those ingredients with considerable finesse.
It’s still dicey enough material to push some viewers permanently away, but those who embraced Tony Soprano’s whack-a-gangster exploits should find enough moral wiggle room to relish the drama here.
The season starts with Bill (Bill Paxton, the show’s rock) zeroing in on a fourth wife, a waitress named Ana (Branka Katic) who isn’t sure she’s ready to be part of an “extended family.”
Neither are the existing wives, although a group date featuring Ana and the blushing brides supplies early comic relief.
Big Love‘s villain, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton ), is rotting in jail on charges he had sex with minors. It’s a story ripped from semi-recent headlines , but the images of the conservatively dressed women who Roman took advantage of is eerily up to date.
Stanton, his face full of stubble and double crossing thoughts, oozes evil even from behind bars. It’s a safe bet he won’t remain incarcerated by the time the season wraps.
Besides, how can you keep such a great character down for long?
And Big Love is full of ’em, from the despicable Frank (Bruce Dern) to Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), Bill’s most stubborn wife — and the only one to wear traditional Mormon garb.
As if Bill doesn’t have enough problems to deal with, including an upcoming block party and a cancer scare with one of his wives, he’s trying to join with a Native American casino operator to expand his Home Depot-style empire. But cultural differences, and not the ones you think, could derail his vision.
Big Love depicts a squeaky clean family that, on the surface, would be embraced by values voters. They care about their loved ones first, don’t cuss, consider being parents of utmost importance, and they’re never seen loafing. Plus, they’re faithful to their religion.
They just so happen to be polygamists.
That setup lets the show’s writers riff on themes of alienation and spirituality that overlap the real-life worries faced by more accepted branches of religion.
“Our way of life is under attack. … Don’t you watch the news?” asks Nicki at one point. It’s no accident that Sevigny gets the best lines. She’s the iciest presence in the series, a scene stealer who does it all without drawing undue attention to her.
But like nearly every element in Big Love, her performances are modulated just right to make the blend of high drama and social commentary stick.
Ginnifer Goodwin continues to find new shadings to Margene, the youngest wife who clearly is coming into her own this season.
The show’s setting alone makes it noteworthy. It’s a suburban expanse teaming with cul-de-sacs and neatly trimmed hedges. But it never mocks middle American dreams or showcase characters dying to break free from their malaise a la those Revolutionary Roadsters .
All Bill’s family wants is to live a “normal” life, one free of prying eyes and the potential for persecution around every corner.
A few of the many new subplots prove tepid, as if they were ripped for demographic purposes from a Beverly Hills, 90210 table reading. And a sudden character turn by one of Bill’s trusted colleagues feels like the kind of stunt shows pull off when their creative energies start to wane.
The show should also do a better job explaining the appeal of polygamy to Ana — why would this fascinating beauty even consider signing up as Wife No. 4?
It would be easy to castigate the show for not passing judgment on Bill’s arrangement, but an entire series built around hectoring wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time. Big Love hardly makes the polygamist lifestyle look appealing. Bill appears exhausted by his husbandly duties, from satisfying his spouses to raising enough money to support his large brood.
And while FX’s Nip/Tuck must get more outrageous with every episode, Big Love manages to introduce most new storylines without it feeling like a series of stunts.
The show’s biggest strength — and potential weakness — is its running theme. Will the family get exposed and face prosecution?
That threat remains as vital to the series as the sexual chemistry between Sam and Diane on Cheers. Once it’s gone … what’s left?
For now, enjoy Big Love‘s smorgasbord of savory characters and subplots while the chance for exposure remains a very real possibility.