First Review: Big Love

Let’s face it, Sunday nights on SBS have never been much chop. Worthy documentaries. The odd arthouse movie. That’s about it. Now the public broadcaster is making some key changes and it’s got a doozy of a drama that will divide intelligent viewers bored by the soapy antics of Grey’s Anatomy or CSI overkill.

Big Love is a big, bold series from HBO. That alone should be enough to grab your attention. HBO has a stellar track record of quality drama including The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz, Entourage and Sex and the City. This 12 part 2006 drama by openly gay writer Mark V. Olsen and co-writer Will Scheffer sits easily in the same company.

Set in Salt Lake City, Big Love looks at a polygamous family headed by Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton). He has three wives and seven children. The family live in separate but adjacent houses linked by a communal backyard. It’s a piece of dirt that Bill spends all day criss-crossing, but his nights are scheduled for equal time sleepovers between his wives. If this is supposed to be a heterosexual man’s idea of nirvana the drama will show us otherwise.

Acknowledging HBO’s reputation, the three central women in his life are big screen actresses Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin. The wives are all friends, adopting complementary roles that challenge stereotypes of the nuclear family. There are regular “family home nights” that endeavour to chart a sustainable and tempered lifestyle.

But the ladies also have underlying jealousies and emotional responses they harbor as private fears.

While trying to manage his hardware business, Bill is pulled from all ends of the spectrum. The kids are demanding, one wife hounds him for more money, another chastises him for being slack, and he can’t even get an erection with the third. Some nirvana.

If that isn’t enough he learns his father is dying, and his mother played by Grace Zabriskie, has left him festering in his own filth at a rural Utah compound because she doesn’t believe in hospitals.

The tone of Big Love swings brilliantly between character drama, humour and dark observations of American society. One moment when sect leader Roman brings his child fiancé to the compound is chilling stuff. Is this ‘consenting’ paedophilia?

Other notions like Jonestown, Waco and the Osmonds also spring to mind…

Only in America.

Big Love premieres 8:30pm Sunday June 3 on SBS.

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