I’ll talk about Big Love in more detail starting June 11, when the House debuts a new recap series, “Big Love Tuesdays.” For now I’ll just say that in the first five episodes of the HBO drama’s second season, it has evolved from a damn good show to a nearly great one. In its first season, Big Love seemed reluctant to tell the story of a polygamous family without leaning on expository crutches; to make certain episodes happen, it occasionally lapsed into plot contrivance or needless melodrama. But in its sophomore outing, Big Love moves with the confidence of a series that has figured out what it wants to be and how to get there. As the House recap title indicates, HBO, in its infinite wisdom, has stranded the show on Monday, a night where even Six Feet Under couldn’t do much, ratings-wise, so I’ll sound the alarm now: Don’t miss it.
Big Love parses relationships between people in a family setup that few Americans have experienced, and makes it comprehensible and believable. Even if you’ve never had to deal with a third mother or a sister wife, the series illustrates the difficulty of navigating these relationships with subtle writing and even better acting (especially from Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin as the wives of Bill Paxton’s ambitious retailer, Bill Henrickson). It still rankles when the two younger wives call Tripplehorn’s Barb “boss lady”; but no other series could concieve a scene as original as the one where Goodwin’s Margie tells Barb that she understands her limits in her uneasily flirtatious relationship with Barb and Bill’s teenage son. Just as striking is the fact that Big Love really understands the sheer passion of fundamentalism—of giving in to something larger than yourself and dedicating yourself to that abstract dream. While the characters’ polygamous lifestyle puts them out-of-step with mainstream America, they speak unironically of following God’s calling and having visions and abstaining from alcohol or sex before marriage. Unlikely as it may sound, given the multiple spouses and the subtextual arguments in favor of gay marriage, America’s fundamentalist Christians have no better friend than Big Love, which argues that the passion they feel for God is as valid as any other emotion. At the same time, though, the series is not afraid to depict polygamy and fundamentalism’s discontents, represented most notably in its teenage characters, portrayed by Douglas Smith, Amanda Seyfried and Daveigh Chase. All cope with losing their faith in the culture that raised them, and fighting against a secular world that enfolds them every time they leave the house.