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'Big Love': Three Wives and a Thousand Problems


The Sopranos are back on HBO this Sunday. Fans of the mob drama have been waiting nearly two years for the show's return. This go-round, they'll have different time-slot neighbors, the new series Big Love. If you thought the Sopranos were an unusual family, wait till you get a load of the Henricksons. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.


Big Love stars Bill Paxton as Bill Henrickson--your average, hard-working family man in many respects, except one. He's a polygamist with three wives and seven children. Now, I know how gimmicky that premise sounds as a television show. It's the kind of subject that could make a great documentary, or be mocked in the span of a Saturday Night Live skit.

But Big Love manages to be so much more than that. It operates on two levels, really. At its core, Big Loves probes profound issues of love and marriage in dramatic fashion, but it also has a great deal of humor, mined mainly from exploring the logistics of having three wives. In this scene, Wives 1 through 3, played by Jeanne Triplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin, schedule how they'll share their husband.

Ms. JEANNE TRIPLEHORN: (As Barb) All right, next month, it's Nicki the first, Margi, the second, me, the third, Nicki, the fourth, Margi, the fifth, and so on. Margi, your birthday is the 21st...

Ms. GINNIFER GOODIN: (As Margene) Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRIPLEHORN: (As Barb) ...which is mine, but I'll give you Bill for the night.

Ms. GOODWIN: (As Margene) We could trade.

Ms. TRIPLEHORN: (As Barb) Oh, sweetheart, that just makes it more confusing.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: All three actresses are terrific, and so is Paxton, but the real scene-stealer is the veteran character actor, Harry D. Stanton. He plays the crooked leader of the fundamentalist sect that left the Mormon church over the polygamy issue. He also happens to be the father of one Henricksons' wives, and an investor in his company. Stanton delivers every line with maximum creepiness, and you'll hear here, when he unfairly demands a bigger piece of Henrickson's business.

Mr. BILL PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) You're entitled to 15 percent of the first store, which you receive. This store is a franchise. You're entitled to 15 percent of the franchise fee it pays to the first store.

Mr. HARRY DEAN STANTON: (As Roman Grant) And who owns the franchise? You can put it any way you want, Bill. Have your attorneys arrange it any way you please, but we get 15 percent of anything you do. Listen to me, son, carefully; there's man's law, and there's God's law, and I think you know which side I'm on.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: If I have any concern about Big Love, is that there's too much here. The storylines are spread so generously among this vast cast, that some characters are more compelling than others. The strange thing I found is that I gravitated least to Big Love's central gimmick, the uneasy coexistence of the three wives, and put more draw into sub-plots involving Bill's parents and his kids. I could hail Big Love as the next great HBO series, but not in the way you might think. If narrative quality is on par with the Sopranos or Six Feet Under, but its subject matter and tone are so different, I'm loathed to lump them together. And that may, in fact, be what makes this series a breed apart from the rest of television.

Like some of its predecessors on the network, Big Love feels incredibly original, and impossibly rich.

ADAMS: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
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