Officially, ”Family. Redefined” is a tagline associated with The Sopranos. But unofficially, the phrase has become HBO’s mission statement for all of its fanciest Sunday-night doings. The redefinition of what constitutes kinship may vary, but it’s the deadpan serious acceptance of mobsters, undertakers, gold prospectors, single girls in New York City, and wannabes in Hollywood as functional family units that gives high-end hit shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Sex and the City, and Entourage their kick.
As well as their HBO-flavored kink. Family values don’t come much twistier than those that guide the Henrickson clan in the new serial drama Big Love — or, as the rest of us like to call it, ”the one about polygamists in Utah, with Chloë Sevigny in prairie skirts.” We’re now a handful of episodes into the lives of the Henricksons — right-living husband, father, and successful businessman Bill (Bill Paxton), wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), their various offspring and relatives. And now we know for certain what nonpolygamists have always suspected was true: It takes a heap of Viagra, calendar coordination, and subterfuge to make three houses a home.
Of course, this being HBO, the challenges facing a handful of ”average” folks committed to plural marriage aren’t enough to satisfy the itches of show co-creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer. And this is where Big Love teeters right now, on the line between constructive provocation (i.e., Deadwood country) and complications for the sake of soapy diddling (i.e., extreme Six Feet Under agonies). We know by now not only that second wife Nicki has debt and daddy problems, and that third wife Margene is a petulant, sexually ravenous young woman barely past childhood; we also know that Nicki’s family is plum creepy (Harry Dean Stanton is pricelessly unsavory as Nicki’s father and dictatorial head of a cult-like polygamous enclave), that Bill’s mother (delicious Twin Peaks alumna Grace Zabriskie) and father (Bruce Dern) are off their rockers, and that every third person in Bill’s life poses a threat to the enjoyment of his God-given lifestyle. Only the insistently blue sky and neat dollhouse facades of the three Henrickson homes offer cartoon normalcy.
The casting is so good and the production design so sophisticated that the series’ pull toward baroque psychosexual doings is, so far, pleasurable. (Some of the best stuff comes not from squabbles among Bill’s Angels, but in the girl-girl teenage friendship between Amanda Seyfried, as Barb’s daughter Sarah, and her fast-food co-worker Heather, played by the consistently appealing Tina Majorino.) But heaven help the Henricksons if their challenges veer too far away from the serious notion of big love in the future and settle for the easy TV notion of big psychological mess. Let us pray, as Bill does, for Big Love to be guided to the ”path of righteousness.” Or at least away from the traps of postmodern irony.