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March 8, 2010


A Love Not Quite Big Enough



The cast of HBO's disappointing Big Love
We want what we can't have. How’s that for a thoroughly pedestrian lede? But it’s none the less true for being pedestrian, and I discovered recently that it’s been quite accidentally something of a running theme in my own work. To wit:

Several chapters of my first book are set in the International House of English, a boarding house in the Kansai area of Japan where I lived for a two years. The house was set up to allow Japanese residents plentiful opportunities to practice English with its English-speaking residents, but many of the residents skipped nightly English classes and focused their energies instead on breaking curfew rules in order to hook up. My cynical colleague Mr. Angelos observed that if we changed the name to International House of Sex, maybe people would sneak around at night to study English.

A scene in my second book takes place in a Mankato strip club. There, my stoned friend Arnie is inspired to imagine a parallel world in which all women walk the streets bare-breasted but carefully keep their kneecaps concealed at all times, and strippers are paid handsomely for baring them.

Both cases are hypothetical, of course. If sex had been encouraged and English study banned, would IHOE residents really have reversed their behavior? And in the world that Arnie imagined, would Mr. Skin be hawking kneecap paparazzi pix? Someone out there is saying, “No way am I going to forego Jennifer Love Hewitt’s fabulous boobs in favor of her plain old kneecaps.” I say, somewhere out there is the Jennifer Love Hewitt of kneecaps, and in our boob-blinded torpor we just haven’t learned to appreciate her yet. Or, well, maybe not.

All of which brings me to HBO’s Big Love, which is all about wish fulfillment—or rather, wish unfulfillment. I belatedly dragged myself through Season 1 recently and will not be continuing on, thank you very much; and I’ll tell you why not.

The premise of the show, in case you didn’t know, is the remarkably normal (though extralegal) life lived by successful businessman Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), his three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin), and their several children in a suburban Utah neighborhood. We’re led to understand that all the wives were of legal age and well informed when they entered into plural marriage. Meanwhile, the dark side of polygamy, replete with child brides, is ably represented by Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern as evil patriarchs of a fundamentalist commune outside of town.

Those of you who are familiar with both the show and this site will leap to the conclusion that I reject Big Love solely on the basis of its lack of tits. To that accusation, I say: I am shocked, sir; shocked, I say.

Well, all right. The lack of tits is certainly in the mix. Or to put it another way, occasional booster shots of tits might have induced me to stick out a second season. Look, it’s not merely that there are three whole wives and yet not a single nipple to be glimpsed; it’s that the producers seem intent on rubbing our noses in the lack of tits. There are sex scenes galore in this show. The creators obviously want to emphasize that plural marriage is marriage in every sense of the word, so we’re constantly being invited into this or that bedroom to see Paxton getting straddled by this or that wife, who invariably conceals the goods under a hiked-up negligee or pajama top or some such thing. Throughout one memorable lovemaking session, Tripplehorn rocks a granny-bra big enough to dry off a whole SUV.

Which begs a lot of questions. Does Paxton’s character have an underwear fetish? Or maybe he has a premature ejaculation problem that is only triggered by exposed nipples? If the latter, I suppose he deserves our sympathies, fictional character though he is. Then again, maybe he’s a kneecap man. Then, of course, there’s Chloe Sevigny’s case to consider. Are we to assume that she doggedly held out for a no-nudity clause? To preserve her dignity? After The Brown Bunny? The world no longer makes sense to me.

Look, I watch Mad Men. It, too, has no nudity, but it seldom teases us with the prospect of any, so no-harm-no-foul there. Same can be said for Leave it to Beaver: few intimations of hot Ward-on-June action, ergo only slight disappointment. But Big Love wants it both ways: it wants to sell us the sizzle and then hide the tube-steak. A no-nudity HBO series I can take, but I can’t take this constant Lucy-and-the-football approach to sex and nudity.

But really, the non-nude sex scenes are just a symptom of my bigger problem with Big Love, namely that the show is clearly targeted at an entirely different demographic from my depraved, nudity-obsessed ilk. It is, in fact, targeted at unhappily married women—which is to say, in other words: married women.

The entire premise of Big Love is a deliberate provocation by the show’s creators, a rattling of the cage, as it were, of unhappily married women. The premise says to them: So you think you’re unhappy now with your shlub of a husband who never gets off the couch during football season? Or your dapper spouse with the mysterious second cell phone and the long “golf weekends”? Well, imagine that you could trade him in for Bill Paxton, ladies. He’s rich. He’s manly. He’s got such a fine butt that he’s single-handedly handling all our nudity duties for us. He’s tender and sensitive and attentive to all a woman's needs, emotional and “other.” He loves kids and makes time for them because he doesn’t overwork—or drink or smoke. Or even watch football unless one of his kids is playing. The only thing is that, well, gosh darn it all, you would have to share him with two other wives for whom he is providing exactly those same services!

Presumably, the target audience watches with both horror and understanding as the three wives seek to create their own little islands of monogamy within their vast collective ocean of debauchery. We see them convening around the dining room table to hammer out a conjugal rights schedule, i.e. Who Gets Bill's Butt When. One of the major subplots of Season 1 erupts when Bill and Wife Number 1 (Tripplehorn) experience one of those latent outbreaks of lust that come over old married folks now and again—though this one lasts an unaccountably long time. For some weeks, the two of them can’t get enough of each other. But since encounters outside the Schedule are verboten, they are reduced to meeting at motels or to parking in empty fields like a pair of horny high school juniors.

While this is going on, Bill gamely keeps on servicing the other two wives (who always seem ready for non-topless sex, if only to keep up with the competition) so that they won’t get suspicious, in the process of which he over-Viagras himself to the point of blackouts.

All this is catnip, I suppose to the Unhappily Married Woman of the target audience--for a while. Bill goes bonkers not for one of the younger, friskier wives, but for Tripplehorn—the older, steadier, more practical wife who is a cancer survivor to boot. But ultimately she comes to the grim realization that “I’m having an affair…with my husband!” and determines to break it off for the good of the family unit. When she breaks the news to Bill that they must stop sneaking around, the World’s Emotionally Strongest Man totally gets it: Yes, yes. We can’t do this horrible thing to my other two wives. My non-topless sex with you will ultimately affect the quality of my non-topless sex with them, with domino effects for the whole shaky family dynamic. So break it off they do.

So if you’re an unhappily married woman, frankly I don’t recommend Big Love to you. Then again, if you’re an unhappily married woman, frankly I don’t understand why you’re reading my blog. Anyway, trust me, my dear Unhappily Married Woman with Too Much Time on Your Hands: Big Love will suck you in, but ultimately it will drive you mad—or anyway, madder.

And if you’re not an unhappily married woman, I don’t see what you stand to gain from sitting through Big Love—unless you, too, are one of those kneecap freaks. What we need is a revival of HBO's Rome, a tit-fest nearly devoid of emotional fluff. And I hear the new Spartacus is supposed to fill that bill quite neatly. I'll get back to you on that later. In the meantime, I suppose we'll have to make due with the unrequited sexual tensions of Leave it to Beaver.
. But I’m keeping Donna Reed.