I've been thinking about why people decide to watch certain shows rather than certain other shows. Mostly it's been because I realize as the season two premiere approaches that I found Dexter to be an excellent series so far. There is simply no way anyone I know is going to watch that show, no matter how good it is, because the title character (and nominal hero) is a serial killer. Clearly that hasn't stopped everyone from watching … it did get called back for a second season, and the books on which the first season was based apparently sell well enough. But the people I know … not the people whose stuff I read on the Internet, but the people I call my friends … there isn't a single one who watches Dexter, and there probably never will be. People are up for good television, but there are lines that they will draw, and I guess serial killers is one of those places where a line appears.
I wonder if there's something similar about Big Love. Many more people of my acquaintance watch it than watch Dexter, but I think that's more HBO snobbery than any actual value judgment about the shows. Most people who only have one premium channel still choose HBO, so they don't even have to decide about Dexter. Having said that, and knowing that a lot of my friends watch Big Love, there still seems to be something disreputable about it, as if polygamy isn't as good a topic, inherently, as Jersey mobsters. I don't want to go too far with this … plenty of people do watch Big Love, it certainly isn't as embarrassing to admit you watch it as it was to say "I like the American version of Queer As Folk." But I suspect one reason it isn't taken to be quite as good as other HBO shows (not just Sopranos, but even shows like Rome) is because polygamy as a topic bothers some people and seems unimportant to others.
Having said all of this, I confess that by my standards, the real problem is that Big Love, good as it is, simply isn't as good as the best HBO offerings. It's not up there with the Sopranos/Wire/Deadwood triumvirate … it's not even as good as Rome … yet in the end, that's hardly condemning the show, to say it's good-not-great. But I know that most people think they only have time for a certain amount of television watching in their lives, and if such a person were to ask me what they might watch, Big Love would be a bit of a ways down the list. It would make the list, though.
The biggest flaw with Big Love is that there are two co-primary storylines, and one is far more interesting than the other. Were the show just about the political mechanisms that drive the religious cult which is a central part of the plot, you'd have a decent show that I would have given up on after a few episodes, perhaps apologizing for not sticking with it. On the other hand, if the show focused more of its energies on the main characters in the "family" plotline, it would rank up there with the best of these series. Because Big Love really shines when it deals with the lives of the three women who are the wives of Bill Paxton's polygamist "hero." And it's not hard to figure out why. Those three wives occupy what would seem to be a fairly passive, uninteresting, smothered kind of role, yet, as played so well by actresses Jeanne Tripplehorn, my fave Chloë Sevigny, and the revelatory Ginnifer Goodwin, these women are in fact active, interesting, and far from smothered. The best parts of Big Love revolve around the efforts of those women to find a place for themselves within a lifestyle that wouldn't seem to be a positive experience. They aren't perfect, by any means … Sevigny's Nicki is quite devious … but it is fascinating to see how they use their individual skills to improve their lives while still participating fully in the polygamist world. Polygamy as practiced in Big Love would seem to be the ultimate version of It's a Man's World, but the husband is really not much different from any other husband, trying to make it in the business world while fighting off the demons of his family's past. The women … I don't want to say they are the real "power behind the throne" because that would be too easy (and it wouldn't make for much of a TV show) … they inhabit their roles but they refuse to be defined by those roles, and it's the process by which they live their lives that makes Big Love fascinating. And that's what I meant when I said it's not hard to see why the wives are the best part of the show: when you put interesting characters into situations that seem on the surface to be stifling, and then give those characters a chance to deal with those situations in ways that suggest depth, struggle, and the occasional victory … that's a good show. (The terrific new series Mad Men offers a similar presentation of women characters, in that case, women in the transition from 50s mystique to 70s second-wave feminism.)
So Big Love is in the "A" range and the "B" range at the same time. I'm giving Season Two a B+, as I did for Season One, because it's only half-great. But I look forward to Season Three.