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Culture Lust by Angela Carone

Big Love

Bill Henrickson (Bill Pullman) and his wives, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin).

It’s now the middle of the third season for HBO’s Big Love and I’m just getting around to writing about it.  I’ll admit it took awhile for me to really appreciate the show, but this season has definitely clinched it.  I officially heart Big Love .  It's wacky, sprawling, occasionally poignant, topical, and chock full of Mormon soapy-soap opera drama. 

The most recent episode is a prime example.  The Henrickson clan goes on a family vacation to a Mormon religious site.  They have to take three cars and use walkie-talkies to communicate on the long drive.  Every time they showed a wide shot of the family caravanning down the highway, I couldn’t help but giggle.  It’s all so odd.  You know how vacations with the family are always intense?  Well, add three wives, Viagra, banned birth control pills, a pregnant teen, a teenage boy in love with one of his mothers, an urn full of maternal ashes, and the goal of burying the family time capsule for discovery by future generations.  Little Miss Sunshine looks downright run of the mill by comparison.

big Love Family

The Henrickson family.

The Henricksons are all about secrets, creating and keeping them.  The intrigue is wonderful, especially when mastered by second wife Nicki, played by Chloë Sevigny.  When I first started watching the show, I didn’t get Nicki.  It’s much easier to identify with Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the first wife.  But now it’s all about Nicki for me, with her compound-inspired hairdo, prudish blouses and long skirts.   Nicki is deceitful and manipulative; a real bitch to everyone in the house.  But Nicki is also so conflicted and full of rage that you never know what she’s going to do.   She’ll work behind her family’s back to get her accused father, the clan’s prophet, out of jail.  But then, as he walks triumphantly down the courthouse steps, she stealthily trips him and the old man tumbles.  What a brilliant moment of personal triumph for a woman who, at some level, recognizes how wrong it is that her father married her to a man in his 50s while she was a teenager (pre-Bill, her current husband).  Nicki may give in to familial duty – she is the daughter of “the prophet” after all – but she’ll always find a way to rebel because she’s a scrapper. 

Chloe Sevigny as Nicki

Chloë Sevigny as Nicki Grant, Bill's second wife.

Nicki also inspires a lot of the wackiness of the show.  In the latest plotline, her boss is flirting with her, which gives Nicki a charge.   Of course, she wants to talk about it, but who can she tell?  Certainly not her sisterwives.  So she calls crackpot Wanda, who lives on the compound.   Nicki knows Wanda is too crazy to be believed so she’s safe to dish with.  When Nicki tells Wanda about the flirtation and describes her boss as a cardigan-wearing attorney, Wanda yells with despair, “Nicki, you’re married!  You can’t just go around talking about other men’s cardigans.”  Best.Line.Ever. 

HBO has invested in Big Love , giving it the time it needed to develop.  This feels like a rare thing these days.  If a show doesn’t make a big splash from the jump, it’s too big of a risk.  It’s the rare show that is the sure thing, that shines so bright in its very first episode, like The Wire did.  Remember the opening?  A statement on democratic ideals illuminated through the story of a murdered craps player named Snot Boogie – all told on a Baltimore stoop on the edge of a crime scene.  That’s hitting it out of the park first time at bat.  Total Wire tangent, sorry.  The point about Big Love is the characters are now developed, the family dynamics fleshed out, and the writers can now wield the plot sword broadly.  

In my mind, I often compare Big Love to Six Feet Under , though I'm not the first person to do so. Big Love is like Six Feet Under’s trashy, rural cousin.  Six Feet Under’s clan spent seasons earnestly coming to terms with the mystery of the afterlife.  For Big Love’s Henricksons, the afterlife is completely knowable.  They’re building their family for eternal life in the celestial kingdom, which apparently has adjoining real estate, just like Utah!  SFU’s characters – as much as I loved them – spent a lot of time contemplating life and death while looking out over the ocean’s expanse.  No one has time for that in Big Love .  They’ve got mouths to feed, three houses to clean, two hardware stores to run, a casino to buy, a compound of polygamists to contend with, and lots of secrets to keep.  Oh, and if you’re Bill Henrickson, patriarch extraordinare and possibly the real prophet, you have to keep three women happy in bed – thus, the Viagra.  SFU was a much more elevated, ponderous, soap opera than Big Love , but let’s face it – the Henricksons are way more fun. 

February 25, 2009 at 04:13 PM
I thought Sunday's episode was one of the best yet--so much drama and suspense, along with both tender and "icky" moments. I love that show!

Angela Carone
February 25, 2009 at 09:41 PM
Pam, I totally agree. This last episode did everything right, all happening at breakneck speed. Loved the whole rat petting scene. And, the final scene killed me. What do you think of Nicki?

February 26, 2009 at 08:16 PM
I have such mixed feelings about Nikki. Part of me thinks that she is just broken, due to her family, upbrininging, teen marriage, etc, and deserves our pity. But then I think she is just mean and vindictive and selfish and horrible, and I can't feel sorry for her. She was ready to throw Sarah under the bus! But then, she seems to break down and show some tenderness at the end. I guess the long answer is, I don't know what I think about Nikki...still.

Aaron from SD
February 28, 2009 at 04:34 AM
I'm with Ben, a little too focused on Margene.

Reb from San Diego
March 02, 2009 at 10:52 PM
Have loved show since stumbled on it several years ago - pre-HBO pick up. Really quirky wonderful writing and mostly amazing actors. Special favorite is Bill's mother! And Nicki - wow!

Angela Carone
March 04, 2009 at 12:15 AM
Reb, you're so right, Bill's mother, Lois, is especially good. Actress Grace Zabriskie plays her and she's got the most amazing face. All of the actors who play the elders, Harry Dean Stanton as Roman and Bruce Dern as Bill's dad, are stellar.

Caroline from La Jolla via North Park/South Park
March 05, 2009 at 06:36 PM BIG it... Nice meeting you again at the City event was actually quite entertaining..and loved the Simon/Paula thing you and Scott Peters were doing. :) See you soon. C

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