Thursday, May 11, 2006

HBO needs a big hit to replace “The Sopranos,” currently winding up the first of a two-stage final season.

Enter “Big Love,” an oddity even by cable standards about a Utah man and his three wives.

So far, the ratings are solid, even if you factor out the show’s lead-in luck — “Love” airs at 10 p.m. Sunday following “The Sopranos.” “Big Love” regularly appears in the top five cable show listings.

It’s hardly a breakout smash, but it is sparking water-cooler chatter, cyber-style.

AOL’s television page ( listed the series as its No. 4 -ranked “talk board” this week.

HBO already secured a second season of the series, a vote of confidence but not much more. Ratings-starved “Carnivale” made it to season two before limping off into the carny sunset.

Yet “Big Love” has grown from its almost staid first episode into a rollicking sudster that’s different than anything on HBO, or elsewhere on the dial, for that matter.

In recent weeks we’ve seen family patriarch Bill (Bill Paxton) have an “affair” with his oldest wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and heard Bill’s brother profess he has no interest in having multiple wives.

One’s more than enough for him, thank you.

It’s arresting television, assuming viewers can get past the ick factor.

Not everyone does.

National Review’s Stanley Kurtz contends the series is bent on normalizing polygamy, a precarious point along the “slippery slope” that traditional marriage supporters invoke in voicing their opposition to same-sex “marriage.” Mr. Kurtz’s specific interpretation of “Big Love’s” agenda is debatable. But the larger fear it represents — that popular culture continues its inexorable defining-down of deviancy — can’t be easily written off as mere conservative paranoia.

Bravo, for example, has just announced that next month it will air “Three of Hearts: A Post-Modern Family,” a documentary about a “trinogamous” relationship between two bisexual men and a straight woman. “Bravo is proud to be a part of a film that shakes up what society perceives as ‘normal,’ ” brags the cable channel’s Frances Berwick. “This film … perfectly captures the hearts and souls of three people who chose to experience a very different type of long-term loving relationship.”

In contrast, “Big Love’s” creators, openly homosexual partners Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer (who would not comment for this article), have denied in print that the series aims to mainstream homosexual “marriage.”

The show does have breaking news synergy working for it. Utah officials just opened a new investigation into polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, the inspiration for “Big Love“‘s villainous Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), on charges he arranged marriages with underage girls, fraud and other misdeeds.

Todd Petersen, assistant professor of English at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, says the series is attracting viewers who were initially uneasy with the topic.

Mr. Petersen says it’s all about family at HBO — the dysfunctional kind — and that viewers might be responding to a network that offers a different perspective than broadcast channels.

Some observers can see slivers of family values glinting betwixt the characters’ adjacent homes.

Bill and Barb’s affair might, for example, be a sign of where the two may be heading by show’s end — monogamy. And it would be hard to argue “Big Love” depicts polygamy as an easy alternative to traditional pairings. Bill’s brood is in constant turmoil, be it from Roman’s meddling or in-house jealousies.

Mr. Petersen says “Big Love’s” intramarital affair “may be the most interesting commentary” the show generates.

“Even somebody with three wives will still try to shoot for a monogamous operation,” he says. “Hollywood can end up being very conservative when it’s not trying to be.” Count Phillip Swann unconvinced.

President and publisher of Arlington-based sites and, Mr. Swann says “Big Love” benefits not just from a cushy time slot but from what he calls the “HBO halo effect.” “The critics love it … let’s face it. [HBO] takes on subjects to the left, and mainstream critics tend to like that,” Mr. Swann says. Having indie darling Chloe Sevigny in the cast doesn’t hurt, he adds.

What is working in “Big Love” ‘s favor, to an extent, is an aging “Sopranos.” “The viewers are exhausted, and the quality of the show has suffered,” he says.

“Big Love” could keep HBO afloat once “The Sopranos” retires, but that show’s impact will still be felt.

“HBO has a whole lot of bench players and one home run hitter,” he says of the network’s lineup of originals. “Once [‘The Sopranos’] goes, the lineup is exposed.”

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