Big Love: The Complete First Season (2006)
"First wives think they know everything, but really they just walk around in a fog."- Nicki (ChloŽ Sevigny)
Stars: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, ChloŽ Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin
Other Stars: Bruce Dern, Grace Zabriskie, Harry Dean Stanton
Director: Sarah Pia Anderson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes, language, nudity)
Release Date: 2006-10-17
DVD ReviewBig Love is a really remarkable series. While other HBO masterpieces have premises that sound like gold from the beginning—mobsters at home, the bloody Old West—this show, instead, has a premise that really comes from out of the blue: a polygamist family in Utah struggles to maintain their family while dealing with pressures from within and without. It's an idea that could have failed miserably, or been little more than a curiosity: what am I possibly going to get from a show about a man with three wives? Still, I trust HBO by now to put the money behind talented creators, and they've made magic with a degree of regularity that's pretty much unheard of on other networks. They've raised the bar again and again, and they do it here. Big Love isn't just one of HBO's great shows; it's one of the best.
It isn't really about polygamy, it's about relationships, and the many contortions that any relationship can take in love or family, and how those things only become more complicated when others get involved. The foursome of the Henrickson clan can stand in for any extended family. The show gets endless mileage from throwing them all together in various combinations to see what sparks fly. Bill (Bill Paxton) is a loving, devoted husband and successful businessman. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Barb, first wife and somewhat reluctant polygamist who isn't always comfortable sharing Bill with scheming, insecure Nicki (ChloŽ Sevigny), and young, unsure Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). The show starts off running, but over the course of this 12-episode first season, we get insight into their pasts and the things that lead them to join this unusual arrangement. There's a soap opera element, but the characters are so well drawn and hued that it never feels gooey.
To its credit, the show always makes clear that the lifestyle of the Henricksons is extremely atypical, even in the Mormon community. Aside from the strife that comes from within, there's pressure from outside as well. Bill is a successful businessman and a pillar of the community. Were his precarious secret ever to get out—that the three adjoining houses on his block aren't just neighbors—his career as the owner of a chain of home improvement stores would be over along with everything he's built for his family. Every show of affection or slip of the tongue could mean disaster. Marge's standing as a perfect working mom is also on the line, and Margene's desperate desire for acceptance places her in danger of being found out. Only Nicki is entirely comfortable with the life she's chosen for herself, but she has problems of her own. The daughter of Roman Grant (a scary Harry Dean Stanton), leader and "prophet" of a small polygamist community, Nicki cements Bill's ties to the place where he grew up, and to Roman. The problem is, Roman has no interest in seeing Bill be successful if it doesnít profit himself. He and his cohorts make for great villains. Thereís no shrieking horror movie monster that can compare in creepiness to Stanton's Roman. If this show continues for a while, I think you'll find him up there with the all-time great bad guys.
Even after all that, there's stuff that I'm missing: the actors playing the kids and teens of the three wives are uniformly excellent, as are Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie as Bill's parents. There's so much going on, in fact, that it seems as though it could come crashing down upon itself at any time, but it never does. The controlled chaos makes it one of the most suspenseful shows on TV: the family is beset from all sides, and from within, and you really do come to want everything to work out for them. The tension builds to a season finale that's harrowing and heartbreaking. It's not all doom and strife, though. At its heart this show is about a more-or-less happy family desperately struggling to stay that way.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+
|Aspect Ratio||16:9 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: They did a nice job with this. Colors are full and bright, fleshtones are accurate, and I didn't spot any artifacting or other common transfer problems. You pay for the show, you'll get the show looking pretty darn good.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 audio presentation is full and clear, though a little bit thin in the rear channels for a truly immersive effect. Still, there's no hissing or any other common problems, and all of the dialogue comes through crisply and is balanced well with the music soundtrack.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 0 cues
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Jeanne Tripplehorn, ChloŽ Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin
Packaging: Keep Case
Extras Review: As is often the case with HBO DVDs, there isn't much by way of extras. They do, however, have menus that are similar to their other boxed sets. After selecting an episode, you can select the "Previously On" or "Next On" segments, or watch the episode. I just like that. Each disc also has an index that gives a brief synopsis of each episode. The only featurette is Big Love: A Balancing Act on Ice. It's just under fifteen minutes and details the making of the opening title sequence. A bit of an odd choice, being the only doc, but the show has a beautiful and unique opening, so it's actually interesting to see how it was made and how the cast felt about ice skating for 17 hours or so during the filming.
Other than that, there are two commentary tracks. The first is on episode 5, Affair and features Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn. The second is on episode 12, The Ceremony, and includes Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin. They're both light, jokey conversation tracks. Not particularly technical, but they do make clear that there's a good rapport among the main cast.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsI can't recommend this series enough. While the extras are extremely slight (what's up with that, HBO?) The show is what you're paying for, and the show is what you get: well-presented, with very nice picture and sound quality. The premise may not sound very interesting, it didn't to me. Check it out, though, and I bet you'll be very pleasantly surprised.
Ross Johnson 2006-10-16