‘Big Love’ shatters ‘dream’ of polygamist lifestyle

TV has a way of ruining fantasies, and I’m not just talking about the genius at E! who decided to let Hef’s one-time girlfriends talk — and laugh! — on “The Girls Next Door.”

Little boys who wanted to grow up to be firemen were told by “Rescue Me” that if they had, odds are they’d have ended up divorced, addicted to booze and talking to ghosts.

Little girls who watched “Bewitched” and dreamed of the life that marrying an advertising executive would provide found out, thanks to “Mad Men,” that Darrin Stephens — if that was his real name — was more than likely fooling around with Larry Tate’s secretary, Samantha’s cousin Serena and nosy Mrs. Kravitz next door.

And for every married guy who ever thought a couple of extra wives would solve his problems, “Big Love” (9 p.m. today, HBO) is back after a 17-month absence to once again shine an unforgiving light on the harsh realities of plural marriage: In this case, it’s three times the bills, three times the chores and three times the nagging.

And that doesn’t even take into account the truly twisted stuff that goes on at the Juniper Creek compound — home to more rampant misogyny than a dozen old-school rap videos, not to mention the legions of dead-behind-the-eyes women like something out of “The Village of the Prairie-Skirted Damned” — where Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his second wife, Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), grew up.

To be fair, Bill’s just living The Principle, the breakaway fundamentalist Mormon sect’s fancy-pants term for polygamy. You’ve got to trust The Principle, they tell each other, believe in The Principle, put your faith in The Principle — until it starts to sound like something Oprah would peddle in between tainted memoirs. (You can almost hear her welcoming him to her show in that crazy, carnival barker cadence: “Here’s Bill Hennn-rick-sonnnnnnnn!”)

But if “Big Love” took a few jabs at polygamy during its first two seasons, it delivers the knockout blow in this, its darkest year yet. Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), Nicki’s father and the prophet of Juniper Creek, starts the season in prison awaiting trial for, among other things, providing not-entirely-willing underage spouses to his followers.

While that practice was hinted at before with Roman’s own child bride, there’s something about getting a look inside his “joy book” — the catalog of 14-year-old girls and fetishistic photos of their little hands and feet from which the sect’s elders can choose — and the fact that he placed his own daughter in it, that puts him on the fast track from entertaining old coot to slimeball worthy of sharing a cage at Gitmo with Bernie Madoff.

Elsewhere this season, Nicki has taken a temp job with the district attorney’s office to root out the government’s case against her father; Bill’s first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), has a health scare; and his third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), is still pushing for a fourth wife: diner waitress Ana (Branka Katic), who’s quickly becoming a bore.

And Bill, fresh from his acquisition of Weber Gaming, is working with an Indian tribe in Idaho to develop something he calls a Mormon-friendly casino. (Seriously? What’s next, an Amish-friendly car dealership?)

The tribe’s spokesman is in negotiations with more experienced Las Vegas companies, but Bill warns him that anything with Vegas ties would invite more scrutiny from the government. “Plus, there’s the seedy element that comes with all that,” Bill’s business partner, Don (Joel McKinnon Miller), says of Vegas. “Hookers. Showgirls. Meth labs.”

Gee, thanks, buddy.

But if anyone’s even remotely offended by that, they need to get in line. Many Mormons have had problems with the series from its beginning, and that’s understandable. Imagine the outcry if the only Catholic characters in prime time were playground-cruising priests.

“Big Love,” though, is nothing if not self-aware. In one of its more entertaining bits, the “mainstream” polygamists look down on their brethren in the compounds with the same sort of disgust — “They make us look like retards and perverts,” a Henrickson friend complains — that’s visited upon them by the vast monogamist majority within the religion.

And, to its credit, the series does a pretty thorough job of showing that the Henricksons are in no way affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Almost as thorough as its ruining of that whole multiple wives fantasy.

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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