I have to admit that I didn't expect to like this HBO original series, but the intriguing cast of characters and the plotlines drew me in. "Big Love" is the story of Bill Hendrickson and his very extended family, including his three wives and seven children, who have to constantly be on the alert that they will somehow be "outed" by the community at large. This is important not only from a legal standpoint, but from a financial one, since Bill is part-owner with another polygamist in a budding chain of big-box home improvement stores, and thus preserving a stellar public image is important to the success of his business.
Bill grew up on a compound of fundamentalist Mormons that still practice the principle of polygamy, and he was thrown out of the compound and his family when he reached adolescence and became perceived as competition for the affection of young girls who were coming of age. At this point, betrayed by his family and his religion, he turned his back on the teachings of his youth until his first wife Barb became gravely ill.
Jeanne Tripplehorn portrays Barb, Bill's first wife and the sweetheart of his youth. You get the feeling that if he could, Bill would really like to ditch his other two wives and ride off into the sunset with Barb. Barb is a confident and educated woman who is very mindful of her own mortality due to having recovered from uterine cancer several years earlier. She is also very mindful of the fact that she must share Bill with her "sister wives" in order for Bill to abide by his conscience by "living the principle".
Bill's second wife Nicki, portrayed by Chloe Sevigny, is the daughter of compound Prophet Roman Grant. Nicki is very much her father's daughter, calculating her every move, and always playing everyone in the family in order to get her own way. Her many stunts include running up a 58K credit card debt, and when the debt is discovered by Bill, pretending that she slept in a homeless shelter for a night to play the part of discarded wife in order to garner Bill's sympathy. In fact, she had spent the night at a comfy hotel. However, she is also capable of fierce loyalty and courage, going out into the street one night to confront her mentally off-balance brother, Alby, when he shows up in a menacing mood at the Hendrickson household, and also defending Barb against her passive aggressive sister's cutting remarks.
Bill's third wife, Margene, is only 23 years old and is fighting feelings of being somewhat trapped since she already has two infant children and must spend most of her time alone since she cannot risk having anyone know the true nature of her arrangement with Bill. Nicki treats Margene like a personal assistant when she needs her, and like an errant child whenever Margene makes a mistake in judgement. Margene realizes her importance to the family, though, when she discovers Barb's youngest daughter feels guilty for submitting her own mother for mother of the year since she feels that Margene and Nicki are her mothers too and doesn't want them to feel left out.
The main thread winding through this first season, though, is Bill's antagonistic relationship with Prophet Roman Grant, played to perfection by the superb Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton's portrayal of Roman Grant is chilling, as he comes across as part Tony Soprano and part Elmer Gantry. Roman has made a loan to Bill in return for a share in his business. However, Roman is overstepping his bounds and trying to collect revenue on the second of Bill's stores as well as the first. The entire season is about Bill's naive attempts to shed himself of Roman's shadow. Bill can't seem to learn the lesson that when you play hardball with a crazy man, the crazy man returns fire with Napalm. In many ways their season-long struggle seems like a long running Warner Brothers cartoon with Bill's Wile E. Coyote versus Roman's Roadrunner. In the season finale, the Hendrickson family's polygamous lifestyle is revealed to the world in the most unlikely and embarassing of venues. The final scene shows Bill sitting in the backyard, staring at his three houses, and pondering what he may have lost.
Even the supporting roles are intriguing and performed with excellence. There are Bill's completely dysfunctional and bickering parents who would rather see each other dead than happy. Then there is Bill's brother Joey, a recovering addict and former football star, and Joey's wife, Wanda, who is devoted to Joey but has probably watched "Arsenic and Old Lace" one too many times. Finally, there are Bill and Barb's three children, who were not born into polygamy but are trying to find a way to have normal childhoods and also protect the family secret. I truly enjoyed this first season of "Big Love", and I can't wait to see where the second season takes matters.