Husband and wives

Big Love humanizes polygamy

TAKE A NUMBER Paxton, right, relaxes with number one spouse Tripplehorn.

TAKE A NUMBER Paxton, right, relaxes with number one spouse Tripplehorn.

If you’re expecting some sort of hot swinging fuckfest from HBO’s new drama Big Love, starring Bill Paxton as a Utah man with three wives, forget it. Poly-gamy, as seen here, takes the more prosaic aspects of marriage—honor, commitment, child rearing, responsibility, compromise, obligation, menstruation—and amplifies them. It’s enough to keep a man down, literally. Despite the fact that none of his spouses spare his rod (“oral is moral, baby,” breathes Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb), the only Bill that comes with any frequency in hardware-store owner Bill Hendrickson’s home is the one from the credit-card company. By episode two, the put-upon patriarch is secretly popping Viagra just to fulfill his husbandly duties. It’s a lot to take in—a neat and compelling family drama wrapped up in a mantle of ick. But the producers of the series are counting on the accessibility of its core themes to offset the unsavory elements.

“One of the things we tried to do with this character was to make him the ber-dad, the ber-husband, the ber-suburban guy who has all the demands of a normal guy times three,” explains co-creator Will Scheffer, who developed the show with Mark V. Olson, his writing partner and longtime companion. But while Bill’s stress is easy to relate to, the particulars are, well, particular. Not only must he tend to three wives and seven children, he’s also opening a second branch of his store (cleverly called Home Plus), while trying to escape the grip of his crazy extended family who live out in the boonies on Juniper Creek, the cultish compound where he grew up until he was cast out as a teen. Further complicating matters, the leader of this breakaway sect—creepy, pervy Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton)—is after Bill for money, so he must protect his family, all while keeping their illegal way of life a secret.

“I was fascinated by the idea of this world and how a guy would pull this off,” Paxton says. “I never get to do romantic parts. It always seems to me the love story is the subplot to the tornado or the giant gorilla or whatever. This is a love story times three. As an actor, family is the strongest thing you can play. Even if you’re from a family you detest, you can’t escape your family. The more Bill fights against his fate, his destiny, the more he gets pulled into it.”

Unlike the isolated, discomfiting backwater existence of the folk living in the Juniper compound—an interesting nod to the real world of polygamy (it’s estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 people continue the practice in the intermountain West, violating both U.S. law and an 1890 ban by Mormon leaders)—Bill and his family live a modern existence. They reside in three adjacent suburban homes which share a common backyard through which they travel, so as not to attract the attention of nosy neighbors. The families adhere to an alternating schedule of who gets Bill on what night. Bill’s first wife and arguably his true love is sensible Barb, referred to spitefully as “Boss Lady” by his shopaholic second wife, Nicki (Chlo Sevigny), and eager, naive third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the youngest and most recent addition to the family and the one most likely to carelessly blow their cover. Barb is the only wife Bill has registered with the state, while Nicki and Margene pretend to be single mothers when questioned in straight society.

“The material does have an innate yuck factor,” Olson allows. “But we were never interested in it for the sensational value. We really had something serious in mind, which is a strange but very interesting discussion about marriage and family. And what distinguishes the show from The Sopranos and Six Feet Under is that this is not a show about a quote-unquote dysfunctional family. It’s a show about a family that works. In the most subversive way, it’s a show about family values.”

Big Love premieres Sunday 12 at 10pm on HBO.