Plot Summary: A polygamist and his relationship with his three wives.
Creators: Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer
Stars: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny
Serious Jest:(Casual Watch) I began watching Big Love for the novelty of peering into the life of a man with multiple wives, a trepidatious fantasy that I dare say all straight men imagine at some point (although further daydreaming about it often gives way to nightmares about being outnumbered and overnagged). However, I did not think that I would find a show about Mormons in Utah so interesting after that initial novelty wore off.
Well, it wasn’t long before this series showed me how ridiculous my biases were. The show grabs you with its universally human themes, and it also educates you by shedding light on both sides of explosively controversial issues that are very specific to a relatively small group of people, but nonetheless extremely important enough that we should all be aware of such issues. The storytelling is gripping, featuring: a man who built a small empire out of nothing after being cast out of a polygamist compound and onto the streets; his first wife, who bought into this way of life out of love for her husband but still struggles with her choice; his second wife, whose father is the leader of the compound and is responsible for her husband being cast out; and his third wife, who was not very religious before meeting her new family, but has found the path through her love and devotion to this family. More than anything, the themes revolve around people who are attempting to live what they believe is a righteous life, but having to hide it from the rest of society, lest they be persecuted, or even jailed.
It is hard to believe that the legal controversy over the ability of the State of Utah to not just deny polygamist marriage licenses, but to prosecute polygamists for cohabitation, did not come to a head until 2013 (see Brown v. Buhman). As mentioned above, the show presents both sides of the coin, showing how the cohabitation laws were a useful tool for law enforcement seeking to prevent the wrongful exploitation of young women within polygamist compounds and societies, but also recognizing that a significant portion of people who were just trying to freely and honestly practice their religion were arbitrarily caught in the crossfire. Ultimately, my hatred for pretext laws puts me on the side in favor of abolishing anti-cohabitation laws. We should fight the war against exploitation of young women by changing the laws concerning exploitation of young women to better facilitate prosecution of the traffickers, not by casting a wider net that also ensnares innocent people.
The execution of the above-mentioned superior storytelling was masterfully performed by a strong cast. This is the role in which I saw Paxton go from charismatic supporting actor to natural leading man. All of the actresses playing the wives bring out their character’s individual strengths and beauty, but Ginnifer Goodwin in particular delivers The Girlfriend Experience; she only gets more beautiful the more you watch her. And before she became a fantasy woman, Amanda Seyfried was soft-spoken teenage girl Sarah Henrickson, who expressed the turmoil shouldered by the children of polygamists through her big, blue-grey, brooding eyes.
Unfortunately, the brilliance of the show was overshadowed in its later seasons by over-the-top plot twists. It devolved into a hard-to-believe soap opera, and it lost a significant amount of the real-people-problems appeal that made it so relatable early on. Thus, while the first two seasons easily deserve 4 mugs, the bad aftertaste in my mouth left by the latter seasons downgrades the series to a very full 3.