Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Big Love

HBO's Big Love returned two Sunday's ago and I had meant to link to this New York Time's review of the polygamist drama. Times TV critic Ginia Bellafonte clearly appreciates the show, but her review seems steeped in New York liberal elitism, with it's unwillingness to accept the connection between religious belief and the choices of the shows characters. Here's the review in full:

Repulsion over polygamy is so ingrained in the American consciousness — analogizing it to slavery, the Republican platform of 1856 called it one of the country’s “twin relics of barbarism” — that judgmentally reveling in the exotic perversions of “Big Love” feels like something on the order of a national right.

The HBO drama, which returns Sunday for its third season, has hardly come soon enough. When we last left the Henricksons, Barb had decided to shepherd the family out of the closet, boldly announcing to her Mrs. McNosy neighbor that yes, she is married to Bill with his hardware-store mini-chain dreams, but so too are the women pretending to be singletons in the houses next door: Nicki of the prairie dresses and impertinent moods, and Margene, the chipper plaything beaming with magnanimous intentions.

The current season, exquisitely plotted so far, deals in part with the repercussions of outing. Like “The Sopranos,” and nearly the entire canon of post-colonial literature, “Big Love” is a narrative of ambivalent assimilation. Bill wants to move about freely in the middle-class circles of suburban Salt Lake City, selling drill bits to mainstream Mormons, but without compromise to the lawless bed-skipping he indulges in his tripartite fief. Bill Paxton, who plays him, is rarely discussed among the ranks of great dramatic television actors, but he homes in on Henrickson’s unwitting sanctimony and skewed morality with a serene, gently stylized precision. It is as if he imagines himself in a movie of Nicholas Ray’s and then ratchets down the volume to the register of Robert Altman.

The family is currently pursuing a fourth wife, Ana (Branka Katic), an Eastern European waitress whose waning reluctance to join this logistically addled brigade feels as unconvincing as Barb’s commitment to stay with it. The show has never provided a sufficiently adequate explanation for her compliance — it is the series’s singular flaw. All we know is that after Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), affluent by birth and well educated, survived a bout of cancer her husband received a heavenly call to add more wives as if he were stocking a pantry for a heavy storm. The first two seasons addressed her reservations, but Barb now seems more resolved to her domestic circumstance.

It falls to her suffering teenage daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) to serve as the mouthpiece for our collective aversion to it. Sarah sees the repressive double standards the way no one else around her manages to (and in a dramatic turn early on this season, she is shown to pay a stunningly unfair price for the rebellion she has mounted in the name of her clarity). Comically, the double standards are everywhere, of course: in the performances of modesty that play out in the context of a sexual playpen; in the diatribes that Nicki (portrayed with brilliant, unceasing exasperation by Chloë Sevigny) levels against the vulgarities of the outside world as she has amassed heaps of credit-card debt and gambled away more money with her compulsive Bingo.

“Big Love” itself is an ingenious act of double-dealing, offered as a test of our social tolerance as it coaxes us toward condescension. The writers seem to be whispering to us, “If you’re all for gay marriage, then what is wrong with this?” at the same time they are slapping us with evidence validating our reflexive prejudices.

Visually the show often invites our disgust, not just through its depiction of the rank, loony Juniper Creek Compound presided over by the prophet and pedophile Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) but also in its images of spit and urine and sloppy children devouring mayonnaise from a jar. When Bill’s whack job of a father chose to use Bill’s kitchen sink as a toilet, the camera swooped down, forcing us to confront the results. At other times, shuffling among the three houses, it has reached up to the ceiling, forcing us literally to look down.

“Big Love” is a high-brow companion to “17 Kids and Counting” and other fringe reality shows devoted to the lives of those who cannot stop reproducing. Its creators seemed to foresee the fascination-revulsion that the elite might experience at the idea of a large and presumably ungovernable family. There are eight Henrickson children, and Bill, raised in the fundamentalist Mormon tradition and in blind deference to Matthew 18:5, continues to demand more with little insight into whether his wives share his will.

I say blind, because there is no other evidence of Bill’s faith beyond his urge to build an empire of fertile, attractive women. The commitment to plural marriage is never viewed as anything but a tautology: you practice it on earth, so you can practice it in heaven. The Henricksons don’t seem to go to church or wrestle with the larger issues of theistic fidelity. They are like Jews who would define Judaism as abstinence from pork.

Above all, “Big Love” seeks to identify the hypocrisies of fundamentalism in the discrepancies between spiritual belief and cultural practice. Ultimately, Bill doesn’t believe in much, but he invokes God to get his Viagra.

The brilliance of Big Love- the brilliance Hollywood can be capable of- is in it's showcasing of diversity and highlighting of the ways that deep down, despite our differences, we are all simply human, with all the flaws associated with being human. The show is certainly critical of fundamentalism, but the Viagra comment is a cheap shot, indicating that Bill's invoking religion is merely a pretext. The truth that Big Love so eloquently portrays is that religious belief guides every character, including Bill and even including Roman, the cultish leader of the polygamist compound. As in real life, the truth is subtle.

Bellafonte criticizes the show for never adequately explaining Bill's first wife Barb's acquiescence to a polygamous lifestyle quite different from her own family's traditions. But to understand Barb's spiritual beliefs is to understand her choices. As we've seen with her cancer scare early this third season, Barb's acceptance of polygamy isn't simply about a willingness to stay with her husband at all costs- It's about her confronting her own mortality and her understanding of the afterlife. In a slightly different, yet somewhat similar vein, Margene also elects polygamy because of the spiritual consequences.

Beyond Barb, Bellafonte uses more dismissive language to reject Roman Grant, referring to him as both a prophet and a pedophile. As Roman says to Bill in the last episode, he never "supported coercive copulation" and that he only counseled "obedience to help wives achieve harmony with their husbands." That there's a very fine line being tight roped is precisely the point. Roman is a criminal, but he's not the monster that his impending trial this season and the label of pedophile make him out to be.

More loaded language in the review refers to Bill's lawless bed-skipping. And while the show has never been opaque on the issue, the fact of the matter is that Bill's lifestyle- nor the lifestyle of anyone on the compound for that matter- actually break any laws. The multiple marriages are not legal marriages, but religious ones, meaning that in the eyes of the law, Bill's just shacking up with Margene and Nicki. The real issue in terms of the law is in regards to the children- as we've seen from the real life raids in Texas, polygamy is a lifestyle that invokes suspicion from those with the power to take away children.

Big Love doesn't delve into theology, but that shouldn't be seen as a reflection of it's characters. Theology just makes for bad tv, particularly when there's not even any real conflict about it. Ultimately, you can't dismiss religion in Big Love because it is what defines the characters and it's what defines the culture there in Utah. Bill demands more children because that's what God wants- that's not just the polygamist talking but every other Mormon in Utah. Belafonte is critical of the choices fundamentalism forces on women, but the real secret of Big Love is that the show about polygamy boasts the strongest cast of women on television.


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