Yes, it's a show about polygamy. But don’t dismiss Big Love—HBO’s extended family drama is much more than just its wacky premise. What started out as that-show-about-polygamists has, over the course of three seasons, evolved into the best family drama on television. Not because it presents a freak-show version of a plural marriage, but because its characters, while living the plural life, are as familiar as anyone we’ve seen. Emmys voters agreed, and voted the show in for its first Best Drama nomination.
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Yes, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) has three wives. But in this case, having more wives means simply that there is just more to Love. There’s a truth to their characters, and an authenticity in their struggles, their triumphs, their headaches, and their heartaches that is more than watchable—it’s relatable. Bill struggles with being a good man and providing for his family, even as his ambition often gets the best of him. Put-upon first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) questions this life choice as she seeks to ground her family in spiritual direction. Prickly second wife Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), a product of the same polygamist compound as Bill, is torn between her allegiances to her parents and siblings, her spouses, and her own self-serving ways. Peppy young third wife Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) struggles from under her baby-making responsibilities to forge an identity of their own.
These wives live out their days in secrecy, and their nights sharing a bed with one man—what emerges is a tantalizingly tangled web of issues. Sure, there’s the creepy backwoods polygamist compound, the issue of underage marriage, the prospect of a fourth wife, and more offspring than you can count. But the Henricksons are never more real than when they are focused on their own brood. Brilliantly written—as led by its creators, Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen— Big Love stretches our idea of the notion of family, and also creates a textured, nuanced portrait of what makes one tick.
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Allyssa Lee is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Her work has also appeared in Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times.