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  • Post last modified:August 25, 2021

Big Love: Utah Crime Family

Big Love was the little show that could. When the first episode aired immediately after the premiere of the sixth season of The Sopranos, it didn’t look like much. The first season was acknowledged as interesting and well-crafted but nowhere near as compelling as the celebrated mob show. Big Love was never a favorite among Emmy and Golden Globe voters either. But it did find a fan base and critics who recognized the show as one worth writing about. In the end, its five seasons once again proved HBO’s status as a guarantor of quality television.

Three different wives
Big Love focused on Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), a successful Utah hardware business owner who had a secret. He was officially married to Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), but few others knew that he had also taken two other wives in the tradition of his faith, as a member of the Mormon church. They were Nicolette (Chloƫ Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). All in all, Bill had fathered eight children with these women and they all shared three adjacent houses in a Salt Lake City suburb. On the outside they all looked like friendly neighbors, but the houses had a common back yard where the entire Henrickson clan could gather without prying eyes.

Those who knew the truth about the Henricksons included Bill’s business partner (Joel McKinnon Miller) and his (generally speaking) wicked relatives. They included his mom and dad (Grace Zabriskie, Bruce Dern), a pair of white-trash losers who were constantly at each other’s throats, as well as the folks at Juniper Creek Compound where Bill grew up. The highly conservative Mormon community was run by Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), a vicious prophet who made Warren Jeffs look like an innocent.

Two sides of the Mormon church
The show presented two sides of the Mormon church. There was lightness in the shape of the Henricksons who remained (largely) true to each other. The darkness was represented by Juniper Creek whose members were obedient followers to the highly immoral, criminal and mean-spirited leadership of GrantĀ  ā€“ and subsequently his son Alby (Matt Ross), a dangerous man who resented his father and was a closet homosexual, but still found it too difficult to leave the cult behind. Bill had to confront other members of the church who were even more murderous than the Grants, which led to action-packed events that were undeniably exciting but sometimes felt out of character for the show. Because Big Love was always primarily about the Henricksons and the complex dynamic between Bill and his three wives.

Over the years, the strength of their relationship would be tested. Played to perfection as a square-jawed conservative by Paxton, Bill and his actions constantly exposed his family to dangers. This was true when he got involved in the casino business in the third season and when he ran for state senator in the fourth and ended up telling his voters that they had just elected a polygamist. Still, it was hard not to sympathize with Bill’s fervent belief in doing what’s right. Sevigny, Tripplehorn and Goodwin were all exceptionally good as three very different women who fought hard to keep the family together while also trying to discover themselves.

Always more intelligent and challenging than one might expect, Big Love ended with a shocking resolution that ultimately led to happiness for most of its characters. It was a fitting (and moving) ending to a series that sometimes tried to go in all kinds of directions, but always was at its best dealing with its central theme: love and how to protect its fruits.

Big Love 2006-2011:U.S. Made for TV. 53 episodes. Color. Created byĀ Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer. Cast: Bill Paxton (Bill Henrickson), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Barb Henrickson), ChloĆ« Sevigny (Nicolette Grant), Ginnifer Goodwin (Margene Heffman), Douglas Smith, Matt Ross, Grace Zabriskie, Amanda Seyfried (06-10), Shawn Doyle, Melora Walters, Mary Kay Place, Harry Dean Stanton (06-09), Bruce Dern, Joel McKinnon Miller.

Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Sevigny) 10.

Last word: “I came up with the idea and Will hated it but there was a period where I was doing some research because I didn’t know it was all that good either; it seemed like a catchy premise. There was a whole cottage of a first person biography publishing industry in Salt Lake City with people who either were polygamists or [about] the whole Mormon culture and reading them it was like ‘Wow, this is bizarre!’ but it was universal. ‘I can relate to this.’ I passed it on to Will and he shared the enthusiasm and then we both just got behind it. We saw the universal in the material. We saw our families in the material, we saw our marriage in the material [Olsen and Scheffer are life partners] so that’s kind of it.” (Olson, The Futon Critic)

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