Television Revision: Big Love – Season 1

Television Revision: Big Love – Season 1. Starring Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Chloe Sevigny. Rated MA. By Andrew Williams.

Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and warning you away from the specific episodes – or even seasons! – that might have ruined their reputation).

Now this is a story all about how… Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is a well-regarded businessman living in Salt Lake City with his wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and three children. However, Bill has a secret: he’s a polygamist Mormon with two other wives, Nikki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin), and four more children. Living in three houses, the family struggles to keep their living situation a secret from a disapproving community.

Happy days? When you first hear about Big Love, it feels like it’s been constructed in some HBO hit-making laboratory. A former movie star transitioning to TV, plenty of talented character actors, and a setting with all the thematic possibilities, controversy bait, and voyeuristic appeal in the world. Stir well, and let the accolades roll in, right? Unfortunately, Big Love never really resonated with audiences or critics, and had halved its initially strong ratings by Season Two.

The major reason Big Love falls in a hole so quickly is that it spends half of the first season on a thread involving Bill’s battle with Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the leader of a fundamentalist Mormon sect. We spend scene after scene dealing with their weird and wacky members, which is a problem because our protagonists are already a polygamist family. Did that setting really not produce enough material to mine? I can see that balancing the outlandish behaviour of the sect with the Henrickson’s relative normalcy might make us question what we consider to be normal at all, but that’s an arc of one episode, not an entire season.

All of Big Love’s writing shortcomings are a shame, because most of the acting is terrific. The actresses playing Bill’s ‘sister wives’ do more to define their characters than the script ever does. However, a show usually lives and dies on its lead and neither Bill Henrickson, the character, nor Bill Paxton, the actor, are compelling presences.

The final frontier: Big Love squanders its potential through poor writing choices and a disappointing lead performance. But if you’ve ever really wanted to see Bill Paxton’s rear end over and over again, well, you’ve hit the jackpot.

Top Three Episodes: 1) Pilot. The curiosity factor inherent in watching a show of this nature means the pilot episode is one of the few to hold our attention. 5) Affair. The rare outing to focus primarily on intra-family relationships is all the better for it. 10) The Baptism. A strong performance from Goodwin anchors an episode that effectively questions our preconceptions about family.

Worst Episode: 12) The Ceremony. Season One ends on a mind-numbingly predictable cliffhanger that leaves no compelling reason to watch Season Two.

Season MVP: Jeanne Tripplehorn is excellent in the role of first wife Barb, possibly the only fully developed character. It’s a genuine, affecting, complex performance that never once descends into caricature or judgement.

Big Love Season 1 is now available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY until November 23, 2012.

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