Big Love’s third season premiere, “Block Party,” scripted by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Daniel Attias, is, in many ways, a microcosm for the series itself. It dabbles in the show’s most pertinent themes (the clash of modern society and religious fundamentalism, the role of women within fundamentalist traditions and the hard work of building a functional marriage). It offers up a story that tries to cram in one plotline too many (the series is usually better when it focuses on two or three storylines per episode, and it almost always tries to focus on four or five). And it’s only fitfully interesting when it focuses on the hardcore polygamists at the Juniper Creek compound (a setting that grew marginally more interesting in season two but still feels like the only thing in HBO history to be in a series thanks to network notes) or the business world of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, aging surprisingly quickly in HD), but it comes to life any time it focuses on Bill’s three wives or his teenage children. The series also proves again how much of a haven it is for a bounty of actresses Hollywood has just never been able to utilize all that well, and it even fits in a few sly polygamy-as-gay-marriage commentaries around the edges. It isn’t a perfect episode (it’s not a perfect show), but it is a good one and a very entertaining one (which, again, would describe the show itself).
If Big Love’s first season was simply about getting all of its pieces on the sprawling chessboard that is its very premise and the second season was all about examining internal threats to the Henrickson family, season three seems as if it will be about the Henricksons banding together to survive outside threats, from neighborhood gossip to the lure of the outside world to the attempts to bring down Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the head of the Juniper Creek gang and a man Bill has never had much love for but with whom he has to keep making alliances to hold off other, greater threats. Fitting, then, that if season two was a showcase for Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb as she questioned her decision to allow her husband to take multiple wives (that Tripplehorn wasn’t even nominated for an Emmy was probably that perpetually out-of-touch award show’s biggest blunder last year), season three would appear to be a showcase for Chloë Sevigny’s Nicki Grant, Bill’s second wife. Nicki was perhaps the show’s most problematic and least fully realized character in its first season, when she often simply seemed to be slotted into a villainous role, but Sevigny and the writers found a more interesting center to the character in season two, making her a woman who is as out-of-place in the suburb she lives in as she possibly could be.
It’s appropriate that a third season dedicated to observing outside threats to the Henrickson lifestyle would take Nicki as its focus. Not only is she Roman’s daughter and the subject of most of the aforementioned neighborhood gossip (mostly stemming from who her father is, since he’s the subject of a massive investigation into his sexual proclivities and his taking of child brides), but she’s also literally the person who clings the most to the creed her family lives by within her family, more so, it often seems, than even Bill. If there’s always the sense that Barb feels a bit frustrated by the turn her life has taken and that Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is simply a little too immature to fully grasp the life she has landed in, there’s absolutely no doubt that Nicki is committed to the cause. She really believes every word of the spin on LDS that Bill preaches, and she’s deeply committed to not only this religion but also to her family. It seems the conflict this season will stem largely from Nicki’s attempts to balance her new life as a Henrickson with her old life as Roman’s daughter, and in the premiere, she spent much time using Margie’s identity to obtain a job at the county building and out the identities of the anonymous witnesses in Roman’s trial so Juniper Creek could threaten them. When Big Love sidles into this Sopranos-y territory, it often feels a little too forced, but there was something so niftily incongruous about Nicki being the one involved in the intrigue that it’s the sort of thing you can let slide for a few episodes, so long as it doesn’t dominate the show.
The neighborhood gossip about Nicki came to a head in the beautifully filmed titular block party at episode’s end. As Nicki took to her roof to repair it (something she’d been complaining about throughout the episode), a series of misunderstandings between Bill, Barb and the neighbors led to Bill nearly disclosing the family’s polygamist nature in front of everyone as things got heated between him and a neighbor. The sequence risked being hackneyed, blending as it did a series of somewhat improbable misunderstandings and a “Will Bill be stopped in time?!” ticking clock sequence, but the whole thing concluded with Nicki addressing the whole neighborhood from atop her house, which is the sort of appropriately grand gesture this show does so well and which Sevigny played perfectly. It helped that the whole block party was a testament to how well Big Love uses color to create the Henricksons’ Eden. It never pushes things too far, a la Pushing Daisies, but the Henricksons very obviously live in a stylized world of mostly solid, primary colors (look at the way the costume designers use those colors to help the Henricksons on the ground stand out against the green, green lawns and yet keep Sevigny almost camouflaged against her roof until she stands straight up and stands out against the blue sky). Even when it’s not working on all levels, Big Love is usually a joy to just look at.
Bill, for his part, hatched a scheme to partner with an Indian tribe to build a casino in Idaho that would be pitched to Mormons. (I’m not the world’s foremost Mormon expert, but would this sort of thing REALLY be all that feasible? Mormons have a pretty hard-won reputation for clean living. Would gambling fit in with that credo at all?) His whole plot seemed to encompass the themes that make Big Love the unique, occasionally superb show that it is—the clash of fundamentalist religion with modern society. The moment when the Indian tribal representative’s wife (Noa Tishby) voiced her concerns with the Book of Mormon’s condemnation of Native Americans was just perfectly pitched and played, Bill trying to say that it didn’t REALLY say that, then being called on his misstatement with a direct quote, then being saved by Margie haltingly speaking in Shoshone. Any fundamentalist in modern American society will be forced to confront some things their religious texts say that don’t jibe with the plurality of ideas and peoples we live in (the entire debate over Prop. 8 here in California essentially boils down to supporters of gay marriage finally getting angry enough to have a conversation much like the one in this scene on a national level), and attempts to try to skate around this are often deflected. But these arguments tend to be won on the personal level, and Bill certainly is no racist, even if his religious book says some racist things. For one thing, Bill will work with anyone who will make him money, and for another thing, Bill’s religion has almost entirely been about what most benefits Bill, not some deep path to enlightenment.
It’s Bill’s OTHER plotline—where he continues to court the waitress Anna (Branka Katic)—that REALLY intrigues, since it calls upon more of the nuts and bolts of the polygamist setup, which are always fascinating to learn, and also confronts these questions of personal desire versus religious creed that make the series as a whole interesting. Bill and Anna succumb to their passion and have sex, even as Bill becomes pretty sure that Anna’s not the best fourth wife choice (the lonely Margie seems ever more certain that she is, and Barb, dealing with a health crisis, is ready for just about anything). The strange moral conundrum of the scene (did Bill just cheat on his wives? Is such a thing possible?) and the way Paxton plays the discombobulation of the moments after he removes himself from Anna are perfect. It’s nice to see this plotline be a holdover from season two, where it was one of the best things going.
If there’s a major problem with Big Love at this point, it’s that the Juniper Creek stuff just never rises above the level of occasional interest and occasionally gets downright irritating. There’s an attempt to shoehorn a half-brother of Bill’s into the premiere, but it comes off as a slightly less interesting version of what the show did with Rhonda (Daveigh Chase) last season. The Juniper Creek plotlines are just played too broadly and always have been. Stanton is a compellingly oily presence, but too many of the other characters are still stereotypes and ciphers. This is also true of the scenes set in the world of Bill’s business, but at least Joel McKinnon Miller has made Don Embry another sign of how polygamy can go very, very wrong but in a friendlier guise.
Never mind all of that, though. Big Love is still one of the few shows on television that’s willing to tackle issues of religious devotion (and one of the few that’s taking a hard look at the price the credit crunch is demanding of citizens who coasted along on a long line of easy loans). It’s also about the only show on TV that would do things like have Barb tearfully try to pray her cancer away again and then later sit, wordlessly, rocking Margie’s baby and have Margie peacefully look on. Big Love is good at giving us these tiny moments of paradise and then unleashing the snakes.
Some other thoughts:
• About midway through the episode, there was an absolutely gorgeous establishing shot of what I imagine is the Salt Lake City skyline, a tiny dark cloud drifting across fluffy, white ones. Those tiny, dark clouds are always gumming up the works on this show.
• I didn’t get to say anything about Amanda Seyfried in this episode, but if you mostly know her from Mamma Mia!, check her out here. She’s another talented actress with a very unique look that feature films will probably never really figure out how to utilize, but she’s absolutely terrific as the Henrickson most likely to bolt (and I hope she doesn’t after this season to pursue her film career; I doubt she’ll have it this good again).
• Ginnifer Goodwin is the world’s most perfect woman, and I will not cotton to naysayers. I’m sincerely hopeful that if the show gets a fourth season, it follows the established pattern and focuses on Margene, as the occasional hints dropped about the character’s past are more than fascinating.
• I’m hopeful that the show examines repressed homosexuality more in the weeks to come. Olsen and Scheffer are a couple, and they’ve often used the show to both tweak the slippery slope arguments against gay marriage and also subtly argue for legalized gay marriage. But their portrayals of deeply religious people trying to repress their homosexuality have been haphazard at best, mostly in the form of the too-broad Alby (Matt Ross). I’m intrigued, though, by tonight’s hints that Alby is finally giving in to his desires and by the way the show is playing Heather (Tina Majorino) as someone who is clearly in love with her best friend but has yet to develop an emotional vocabulary to even comprehend that. If the series continues going down this road, expect much more on it in the future.
• Favorite line: “But Bill’s the hot dog man!”
• Teeny’s the latest Henrickson child to be enticed by the sexual mores of the larger society (both Sarah and Ben have been or are involved in sexual relationships), as she’s using porn mags to entice neighbor boys to give her money to look at them. One of the show’s better continuing comments is on how fundamentalists can never fully sexually isolate their kids from the world at large (even Bill’s half-brother was having a sexual awakening on the compound), so it’s nice to see this won’t be dropped any time soon.
• Few shows provoke the kind of mixed critical reaction Big Love does. There are a few folks who like it well enough but don’t get all the fuss, but most people either really, really dislike it or really, really like it. I suspect the premise is just too divisive.
• So how’ve you all been? We haven’t talked since, what, summer of 2007? I have another cat since then! I’ve left my job and found my freelancing dry up since then! I hope you’re all doing better, but lemme know what’s up in comments. Oh, and talk about the episode too, of course.