PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Television

A series that gets it half right

Robert Lloyd
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

"Big Love," HBO's well-liked polygamous-family comedy, which begins its fourth season Sunday night, breaks down into two shows for me. The first, which is ostensibly the heart of the matter, involves hardware-store mini-mogul Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) and assorted children, and their attempt to reconcile their queer customs with a normal suburban life. The other is an outrageous power-struggle melodrama, surrounding the Mormon splinter sect compound Juniper Creek, where Bill was raised and with which he remains tangentially involved, usually to his displeasure.

This "Big Love" I can rather enjoy. The family story I do not believe at all.

That story balances delicately on the portrayal of religious belief, and while such things are usually shown on screen as solidly fixed upon a rock, they are by nature ephemeral and hard to render convincingly — especially when the people rendering them do not share those beliefs. For all the "Eternal Fathers" and prairie dresses and the attempt to say something meaningful about family, I see nothing here but Hollywood actors pretending.

The Juniper Creek stories, by contrast, are not really about religion at all — they're about power, control and bad blood, like "The Sopranos," with even worse clothes. Notwithstanding the serious issues that surround them — the exploitation of minors, primarily — they play as raucous black comedy. Much of Sunday's opener deals with the farcical disposition of the body of Juniper Creek "prophet" Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, himself played this season by a waxworks dummy), murdered by Bill's brother, Joey (Shawn Doyle), in the Season 3 finale. It's also here that we get the series' indisputable gift to television, the old-pro turns by Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie as Bill's homicidally feuding parents and the exquisite Mary Kay Place as Roman's now widow.

And it's perhaps because Sevigny's Nicki, as Bill's wife and Roman's daughter, belongs to that story as much as to the domestic drama that, of the three wives, she's the most consistently compelling, a dynamic mass of conflicting, poorly controlled impulses and desires. (Last season she fell in love with a prosecutor and remains so, even as she pushes Bill to become Roman's successor.) Sevigny is funny and intense, and her scenes with Place, her mother, in Sunday's opener are among its best.

But all of the wives are more interesting than their husband. Paxton's character remains a problem for me and, as the pole on which this tent depends, a crucial one. Bill is dutifully reliable, even in matters of sex, and a "good provider," but he is also a bit of a grump, short on charisma, and his vision of bountiful material increase lacks any sense of fun; it's hard to know what any of these lively women see in him. He is also oddly improvident for a man who wants to fly under the radar — putting his face on billboards, getting involved in the gaming industry, and this season taking an even more extreme risk of exposure (though in the eventual hope of living openly). Yet this tendency, though it guarantees suspenseful story lines, is never developed into the kind of intriguing character flaw that might lead him and his family into real, permanent trouble.

Notwithstanding their schematically complementary personalities — because of them, actually — it can be hard to see what the women see in one another as well. But the show demands that the family be preserved — it is a comedy, at heart — and though pushed to the brink again and again, the Henricksons will assuredly sit down to dinner again, in their conjoined back yard, in the warm and unnatural glow of a soundstage exterior.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.