From the first notes of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" ringing under an otherworldly opening credit sequence, Big Love hints at a combination of somber connection and sincere personal adoration. At the center is Bill Henrickson (Bill Pullman), an ambitious home superstore owner who lives a clean, Utah Mormon life... along with his three wives and gaggle of kids.
Although the setup sounds rife for silly gags (Four's Company, anyone?), the creators of Big Love manage its content with genuine sympathy for the human condition and the things we all crave: affection, understanding, success, privacy. And that last one's especially tricky, as the Henrickson clan must constantly stay under the radar, keeping their polygamist secret from the general public and the mainstream Mormon church, both of whom find the practice deplorable.
Bill has big troubles beyond the family secret, primarily in the form of a power-hungry Mormon compound matriarch named Roman, played by a frighteningly calm Harry Dean Stanton. Roman, one of Bill's fathers-in-law, has a delicate hold on his nemesis, taking a kickback from Bill's hardware store fortune through a devilish financial deal. The relationship between the two feels dangerous, with Pullman's quiet aggression toward Roman giving the entire series a creeping sense of doom that can, at times, push the boundaries of realism.
Big Love has some prerequisite soap opera subplots to broaden the show's scope; most of it works, some of it feels slightly forced. An attempt to poison Bill's super-crotchety father (a wincing Bruce Dern) delivers suspense and a good dose of dry humor. The teenagers' lives, especially that of a 14-year-old girl scheduled to be Roman's next wife, are always intriguing, as are the actors playing the kids. On the other hand, an early-season impotence gag runs a little generic rather quickly.
While you soak in the drama and passion, you can't help but wonder about who's behind such an uncommon practice. Thankfully, as the season develops, we gradually gather information hinting at how an honest, reasonable God-fearing man makes a home with three wives. Yet, the details leave more questions than answers. Is it misguided selfishness? A daddy complex? A reaction to his first wife's battle with cancer? To the series' credit, nothing's obvious.
If Bill Pullman is the center of Big Love, the actresses portraying his wives make up the real core. 27-year-old Ginnifer Goodwin plays Margene (wife #3) like a late-blooming child hungry for an adult identity; Chloë Sevigny combines jealousy, rage and tenderness as Roman's daughter, Nicky (wife #2); but the most impressive presence, episode to episode, is Jeanne Tripplehorn as Barb, Bill's first wife and the family matriarch. In the series' emotional finale, Tripplehorn caps the show's ever-growing maturity with a gut-wrenching performance that makes us love her character and long for next season.
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Producer: Bernadette Caulfield
Screenwriter: Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer, Dustin Lance Black, Eileen Myers, Doug Stockstill
Also starring: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Seyfried, Douglas Smith, Jolean Wejbe, Harry Dean Stanton, Mary Kay Place, Daveigh Chase, Matt Ross, Bruce Dern, Grace Zabriskie, Dustin Lance Black