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Is Three Wives a Crowd?

HBO's latest Sunday night series, 'Big Love,' centers on a family of Utah polygamists. Will mainstream America be able to relate?
 
 
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"Can he have sex with both of them at the same time?"

That's what my boyfriend asked midway through a screening of "Big Love," HBO's new drama about a polygamist family (the first episode premieres this Sunday, March 17, after "The Sopranos").

I'm not sure whether patriarch Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) can have multiple-partner rendezvous with his three wives, Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), but based on the first episode, it looks like he doesn't. Except for the fact that he sleeps with a different woman every night, Bill seems as vanilla as can be.

Still, I don't think my boyfriend's question was just wishful thinking. Polygamy is pretty confusing to most monogamists. It seems like the creation of a bunch of sexist, scheming Utah Bible-thumpers who use the "word of the lord" as an excuse to keep harems of women at their beck and call as sexual playthings. Right?

Well, not exactly. Beyond the star-studded (but not overexposed) cast -- which also includes Harry Dean Stanton, Tina Majorino (the nerdy girl in "Napoleon Dynamite"), and Amanda Seyfried (one of the Plastics in "Mean Girls") -- and the fact that I'm riveted by most any show on HBO, the reason I wanted to see "Big Love" was because it promised a new twist on an old stereotype. According to the press release, the program tells the story of Bill's "balancing the needs of his three wives" -- a statement that gave me pause. You mean, Bill is concerned about their needs? How nice of him! (So, polygamy isn't just about what men want?)

In fact, the arrangement is stressful for everyone. This is made clear in the show's opening scene, in which Bill's bedroom encounter with Nicki ends in complete sexual frustration for both. This clearly isn't the first time -- and it won't be the last -- that Bill can't please his wives. As he moves from one house to the next (the women live next door to one another, and they switch off days with Bill), he disappoints each, in turn. And they are really, really disappointed. "Are you going to wear your pajamas to bed every night, or just on mine?" asks Barb. Margene cries; Nicki nags. Bill, our older, stressed-out, almost-every-husband hero, finally turns to Viagra.

HBO has become the go-to channel for family dramas that spotlight "alternative" relationships. At their best, the shows tell us something about all of our relationships. For instance, in "Entourage," a group of heterosexual, homosocial good-time guys live together in a uniquely 21st century arrangement -- what author Ethan Watters called an "urban tribe." And "Big Love" airs right after "the Sopranos," the drama about extended families that somehow doesn't feel far from our own experiences -- the adultery and divorces -- even if it is about mobsters.

So it makes sense that HBO wanted to give the same treatment to polygamy, a multiple-partner familial arrangement that, while rare (the Mormon Church banned it more than 100 years ago, but there are still anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 practitioners in the United States), has an outlaw ethos that is common in plenty of other experimental American couplings, from gay marriage to open relationships.

If "Big Love" has anything to say to such intrepid romance pioneers, it seems to be: "Don't do it." Except for one Norman Rockwell-esque dinner scene, in which Bill, his three wives and seven children all munch contentedly, the relationships between the show's main players seem predictably fraught. Though the women try to support one another -- Nicki and Barb soothe Margene as she obsesses over losing the last few pounds of baby weight, and there is lots of (platonic) cheek kissing -- they spend more time in competition. Nicki takes out her resentment over not having Bill to herself through maniacal catalog shopping, even though buying a new pair of boots means she won't have money for the kids' lunches. "You don't mind, do you?" she passive-aggressively needles Barb, taking a jar of Skippy from the other wife's kitchen. Margene, the youngest and most insecure of the wives, asks Bill if he misses her more than the others.

In other words, it turns out that multiple sexual partners also means multiple emotional partners, and Bill's energies are finite. Not only does he find it impossible to please everyone, but he can't seem to get his own needs met, either. When Bill can't get it up for Margene, he goes to brood by the pool. Barb sees him, and though her first instinct is to go to him -- what any woman who sees her husband in pain would do -- when she looks up and sees Margene watching in the window, she can do no more than muster a wan smile. It's simply not her night to play wife.

What's worse is that there isn't anyone for these women to confess their misgivings to, except one another. Even in Utah, where the show is set, polygamy is against the law, and the family's unorthodox outsider status pervades the plot. When Bill's dad gets sick, they worry about taking him to the hospital for fear of being found out. And though the family isn't Mormon -- they are presented as being some sort of cult-like offshoot of the church -- being thought of as a polygamist is considered the ultimate insult. Bill's pretty teenage daughter sits uncomfortably and waits for the moment to pass as her friends, who don't know about her family's situation, make fun of "Morbots."

The acting on the show is all-around fantastic, but "Big Love" is not compulsively watchable -- yet. With so many Americans living in relationships that are both outside the law and outside our traditional consciousness, the show should aim to do what HBO's stronger family dramas do best, and shed some light on our country's conceptions of the ties that bind. "Big Love" definitely has something new to say about polygamy, but will it say something new about other kinds of family relationships as well?

Kara Jesella is a freelance writer in New York City. She is currently co-writing a book on Sassy magazine for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.