The current big HBO hit, “Big Love,” is now four episodes into its fourth season, and while the main characters have not changed, much of the storyline has.
For those who have not hooked up with the show (let alone gotten hooked by it), here’s the basic essence of the story. The central characters are Bill Hendrickson and his three wives, who all live together with their seven or eight (hey, it’s hard to keep track) children in a quiet middle-class suburb of Salt Lake City.
Yes, the Hendricksons are Mormons, albeit they aren’t in good standing with the official church. They’re polygamists, which the church has outlawed for over one hundred years. But this family, and a whole slew of other folks in the series, is practicing the “principle,” which, although it is never completely spelled out, appears to involve a belief that being married in God’s eyes assures eternal life with all family members in a physical paradise.
The first three seasons of the show, which lists Tom Hanks as a co-executive producer, focused largely on Bill and his three wives and their ongoing run-ins with the father of one of the wives who reigned supreme as the “prophet” of a sizeable enclave of similarly-minded Mormon polygamists. That guy, Roman Grant (beautifully played by Harry Dean Stanton) died (or was killed off) at the end of the last season, leaving Bill Hendrickson to ponder whether he might have a future as the new “prophet.”
But Bill has a different calling (at least to this point in the fourth season of the show), and it is politics. Thus, much of the action is taking place in Washington, DC, with beautiful shots of the Capitol and other monuments as backdrops for the intrigue that is unfolding, plot-wise.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Bill’s first wife is trying to run the big Native American casino that the Hendrickson’s are co-owners of. That plot-line is getting into heavy social issues the likes of which aren’t visited on commercial television at all: issues like cultural purity, reverse racial bigotry, and ethnic insensitivity.
And as if that isn’t enough, Roman Grant’s son, who also wants to be the new “prophet,” is “fooling around” (his words) with another Mormon male (an attorney who vows to avoid the temptation of carnal coupling every time they meet, only to succumb moments later).
So the show has taken on a decidedly more aggressive posture in the world of cable broadcasting, dealing with serious issues and doing it in a way that doesn’t preach and doesn’t judge. It’s a show to watch, even if it all sometimes seems just one notch above a glorified soap opera.
And what make it eminently watchable are its excellent cast and top-notch production values (to include the on-location scenes in the nation’s capital that premiered this week).
The cast is led by Bill Paxton as Bill Hendrickson and Jeanne Tripplehorn as wife #1, Chloe Sevigny (in the role for which she just won the Golden Globe for best supporting actress) as wife #2, and Ginnifer Goodwin as wife #3. Other standouts are Amanda Seyfried as the eldest daughter, Douglas Smith as the eldest son, Matt Ross as the “fooling around” would be “prophet,” and Mary Kay Place as wife #2’s mother, who was one of the now dead prophet’s many wives.
Okay, so you kind of need a scorecard to keep track of the players. But don’t let that little detail stop you. This show has as much entertainment value as any show on the tube these days, and it doesn’t hurt that it is exploring, in its own bizarre way, some of the cutting social and political issues of our times.
“Big Love” isn’t a great television show, but for what it’s trying to do, it gets a solid A from us.