Like so many HBO shows that air in the wake of "The Sopranos," "Big Love" got a little bit lost in the shuffle this spring, even though the first season of the polygamy-as-family-metaphor drama was every bit as satisfying at the most recent half-season of the Mafia-as-family-metaphor juggernaut.
Bill Paxton plays Bill Hendrickson, a Utah man who appears to have everything. He has a successful chain of home goods stores, three adjoining properties in an upscale housing development and an assortment of healthy, well-adjusted kids. Bill, whose grandfather was considered a prophet by a polygamist splinter group, also has three devoted and beautiful wives. There's his first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who has had to adjust to Bill's shift from monogamy to polygamy, second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), the stern daughter of the current prophet (Harry Dean Stanton) and third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who's frequently a child herself.
The first season of "Big Love" had plenty of big dramatic beats -- The Prophet's attempts to crush Bill's business, the increasingly deadly tensions between Bill's mom (Grace Zabriskie) and dad (Bruce Dern), the family's constant fear of discovery -- but the show's heart lies in the little moments of confusion and doubt that spring up in the most loving of relationships, multiplied by three. Polygamy aside, "Big Love" is probably as family values-oriented as any show celebrated by the Parents Television Council, so the important question is never how Bill will hide his secret from the authorities, but how he'll sustain conjugal relations with all three wives, or how he's handle Nicki's credit card debut, or whether he should feel guilty for "cheating" on Nicki and Marge with Barb.
Paxton is a fine centerpiece for the show, but it's the three leading ladies -- all clearly enjoying playing the kinds of complicated, multi-layered women that film writers don't have the time for -- who shine. It's Tripplehorn, Sevigny and particularly Goodwin (one of the two or three most underrated actresses on television) who deliver both the melodrama and the surprising comedy. In fact, even beyond those three leading ladies, "Big Love" has gotten splendid regular work from the likes of Zabriskie, Melora Walters, Daveigh Chase, Amanda Seyfried, Mary Kay Place and Tina Majorino.
The plot of "Big Love" occasionally meandered, which makes it perfect for DVD viewing in large blocks, leading up to the season finale that left everything in serious limbo.
Extras on the HBO DVD are, regretfully, thin. The only featurette is the 12-minute "Big Love -- A Balancing Act on Ice," which gives a close textual reading to, of all things, the show's Emmy-nominated credits sequence, paying particular attention to Paxton's skating abilities (minimal) and the use of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Schieffer make a fine case that the credit sequence compliments the themes of the show as a whole, but the duo is vexingly absent from the rest of the DVD package, eschewing even standard commentary tracks.
Instead, Paxton and Tripplehorn team up to talk over the fifth episode, "Affair," repeatedly noting that they don't know why they're commenting on that particular episode. The track devolves into blue comedy, as Paxton gets raunchy and Tripplehorn critiques her own lingerie scene. While it isn't more informative, the track from Tripplehorn, Goodwin and Sevigny is far more amiable, with the ladies talking about acting (Goodwin points out her "shocked" face and then accuses Paxton of stealing it), potential spin-offs ("Little Love," "Compound Love," "Lot of Love," "Love," "Lo") and the commentary track itself ("I guess they shouldn't call this, what we're doing 'commentary,'" Tripplehorn observes. "They should call what we're doing 'reacting,' because there isn't a lot of commenting.")
While I like and recommend the show, this must be said: HBO's original series DVD packaging is always top-notch in terms of art, production values and collectibility, but it seems particularly overboard in this case. Distributing 12 episodes of a series across five discs with almost no extras is just wasteful, while a $99.98 sticker price is even worse, particularly for an underwatched show that would have a better chance of finding an audience if people could actually afford to discover it. This treatment makes sense for a show as popular as "The Sopranos" or with the devoted fan base of a "Deadwood," but for "Big Love," it's ridiculous.
Extras: Commentary on two episodes, "A Balancing Act on Ice" featurette.