When HBO announced plans to air a series about a fundamentalist Mormon married to three women, cultural conservatives let out a collective "I told you so." Acceptance of premarital sex on TV had led to acceptance of gay sex on TV, and now the permissive spawn of Will & Grace was holding its coming-out party. Polygamy was going mainstream. Could bestiality be far behind? ("HBO presents: Animal Shelter Confessions!") But Big Love doesn't worry about whether polygamists are living right; instead, it drops them in the middle of the Salt Lake City suburbs and examines how they live at all. In the process, the series makes a powerful case that fundamentalism of any stripe exists in an uneasy truce with the civil and economic religion of American mass culture.
Bill Paxton makes the perfect polygamist husband. A square-jawed, straight-arrow of a fellow, he prowls the floor of his big-box home-improvement store in white shirtsleeves and conservative dark ties. As far as his customers and employees know, he and wife Jeanne Tripplehorn have two teenagers and a grade-school daughter. But when Paxton enters his front door, he's in a miniature compound with the two houses occupied by his other wives (Chloë Sevigny as a prairie-skirt-wearing true believer, and Ginnifer Goodwin as a 23-year-old neophyte) and their children. His little enclave mirrors the Juniper Creek community, a remote retreat occupied by prophet Harry Dean Stanton and his breakaway Mormon sect, from which Paxton was driven as a teenager. Far from the support (and repression) of his co-religionists, Paxton and his family try to combine the practice of their faith with the American dream—a pursuit that requires juggling secrets and telling outright lies.
Of course, the practice rather than the faith gets them in trouble. But one of the series' key themes is whether the two can be separated, the way the Constitution separates church and state. For all the pious family values that Paxton's religion enjoins, his nightly rotation from bed to bed to bed doesn't feel that much different from promiscuity. And as the season draws to a close, the husband and his "sister-wives" all ask themselves whether they will join clubs that don't want them—the real them—as members. It's a question that devout evangelicals must ask themselves often, as they negotiate the initiation rites of secularism, consumerism, and live-and-let-live liberty that will gain them membership in Club America.
Key features: Actors' commentaries on two episodes, and a featurette on the making of the "God Only Knows" title sequence.