Boy Meets Girl, Then More Girls

HBO’s Big Love and the stuffy side of polygamy.

Ginnifer Goodwin, Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Chloe Sevigny in HBO's Big Love. Click image to expand.
Ginnifer Goodwin, Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Chloë Sevigny in HBO’s Big Love

So, you thought you’d seen everything those alienated types who create hit TV series had up their hipster sleeves. We were all fascinated with the Six Feet Under clan, dragging their twisted inner lives and even more meshugeneh realities all over their widowed mother’s spotless linoleum kitchen floor, leading her to take up smoking pot. Now Tony Soprano and his stewpot of gangland cronies are back, beguiling us with their vulgar blood-spilling and messy coke-snorting ways. And, as if that weren’t enough, right after The Sopranos there’s Big Love, featuring Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), a guy with multiple wives and seven children who’s moved across the street into three adjacent households that share a single backyard, pretending to be the head of a normal American family under the very noses of the law-abiding folk who live in his Salt Lake City suburb.

One thing can be said for sure: If the secret desires and errant fantasies of aculture are reflected by its mass entertainment, we are living in foundering, category-challenged times. (In fact, from the looks of it, TV-land may be falling behind the curve of Real Life. In the real world, a lesbian has just been voted Homecoming King at forward-looking Hood College in Maryland, while Emily’s Reasons Why Not and LoveMonkey, two recently aired shows involving two single heteros looking for love—how retro can you get?—were both canceled with record speed.) The traditional paradigms of connection and romance no longer seem to be bearing up under our scrutiny, worn out by mockery and parody or plain old malaise.The “normal” family in American film and movies—the original nuclear model, that is, the one that inspired the heartwarming ‘70s TV show Family—appears to have gone up the waterspout, along with the traditional boy-meets-girl scenario.

Meanwhile, the marginalized and misbegotten—perverts, as J. Edgar Hoover would have called them, or inverts, as Freud did—have been gradually insinuating themselves into our hearts and minds. All the really persuasive bonding taking placethese days is happening far from the Mom & Pop master bedroom.It goes on between gay men and women (Will & Grace); female friends (Sex and the City);women and women (The L Word); and, perhaps most insistently, men and men (Brokeback Mountain).And although the once-hallowed ideal of romantic pining is no longer perceived as a glorious sacrifice when a woman waits by the phone for a man to call—better she should figure out, sooner rather than later, that he’s just not that into her—this sort of risible soul-mate anguish takes on a noble mystique when it occurs between two cowboys who live for their twice-yearly fishing getaways.

Given how shaky we all feel these days in our chosen moorings, it makes perfect sense that HBOhas warmed to the concept behind Big Love. The really surprising thing about the series is not how steamy and illicit the populous Henrickson ménage isbut how little heat it gives off—how downright tedious it manages to make polygamy seem. Paxton’s amiable and hardworking Bill Henrickson is permanentlyput-upon; when he’s not overseeing his thriving home-improvement business (note the line of work he’s in), he is at the beck and call of his demanding spouses.His trio of women, disparate as they are in age and temperament (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin), have one thing in common. They all want more of hubby: more of his time, more of his money, more of his help with the chores, and more of his sexual attentions. None of them can get enough, especially of the last, which drives the exhausted, testosterone-deficient Bill to pop Viagra like breath mints.The show’s setup has the strange effect of inverting the terms of the unreconstructed patriarchal paradigmthat the sexual politics of polygamyplays to.In Big Love’s hands, the harem fantasy so beloved of hot-blooded malesturns out to be one long harem nightmare; what might have been a thrilling exposé of the excessive and the aberrant boils down to being afamiliar tale of the domestic fatigue that has assailed the lives of couples ever since Adam hooked up with Eve (whose turn it is to do the dishes/buy the groceries/have sex tonight), times three.

How, you might ask, has all this weariness with conventional heterosexual partnering come to pass? How have we gotten to the pointwhere a man who has three attractive women in his revolving bed is a man who is destinedto suffer? Much of the problem, I would argue, is with the basic conception of the show, which has taken the religion and—perhaps even more to the point—the lust out of polygamy in its effort to present it as just another choice in the alternative relationship smorgasbord.

The co-writers of Big Love—Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer *—have tried, in their own words, to be “nonjudgmental and humane” about the institution of polygamy, insisting thatit is an “ideal template to look at marriage and family.” Can they possibly mean this? Isn’t this a bit like arguing that the seduction of underage boys by adult men is an ideal template from which to view homosexual life? Polygamy, whatever else it is, is both illegal and a throwback to more benighted notions of dominance and submission within family life—an assertion of the hegemony of older males over younger females.(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has outlawed polygamy since 1890, although it continues to be practiced by fundamentalist cults—with a population that has been estimated as anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000—who claim allegiance to the Mormon religion.) For me, the really disturbing aspect of the seriesis not that it soft-pedals the lifestyle’s darker sides—its reliance on a constant supply of young women, its tolerance of incest and pedophilia under cover of God’s law, its exiling of younger men who might compete with the older males of the community for wives. It’s that the show’s creators—who happen to be a gay couple—have written a series that wears its values on its sleeve, albeit unwittingly, and those values are,in a word, heterophobic. They are, that is, subtly and not so subtly misogynistic (the women come across mostly as simpering dominatrixes, begging for a new car when they’re not demanding that Henrickson get it up on their allotted night with him) as well asinveterately pitying of the benighted, hen-pecked, breeder male. Invisible quotation marks are everywhere you look, bracketing the very concepts of “marriage” and “family” the show purports to examinesympathetically, or at least neutrally.

The result is that polygamy never looked worse than it does here, suggesting not an end to the humdrum rhythms of marital life but an alarming extension of them.I cannot help wondering whether some of this dreary message is attributable to the simple fact that the show’s creators can’t quite imagine their way into figuring out what all the whoop about men and womenis about.If homosexuality has gone from being the love that dare not speak its name to the love that proudly carries the torch of erotic passion, heterosexuality has gone from being the only game in town to a failed sideshow.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the homoerotic ethos has triumphed—as a persuasive cultural narrative if in no other way—while the straight narrative has gotten lost in ridicule and anxiety. But you never can tell. One of these days straight-bashing will breathe its last breath and the dysfunctional “normal” family is sure to come back into cultural fashion, if only because it’s never gone away in the real world.Meanwhile, keep your eye on the two women playing footsy in the fourth episode of Big Love: Here’s betting that’s where the action will be.

Correction, March 10, 2006: In the original version of this article, the names of Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, co-creators of Big Love, were misspelled. This error has been corrected. Return to the sentence.