By Tim Goodman
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Before "Big Love" devolved into ridiculousness, the HBO drama was one of television's strongest shows, delivering compelling story lines about polygamy in Utah. But even at its creative pinnacle, "Big Love" never rose to the top tier of great television. And the reason came down to a surprisingly simple element: compassion.
It was difficult to have any for Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), the polygamist husband who found out that three wives were a lot but not exactly enough. Part of the blame might be that Henrickson never gives a strong argument for plural marriage. Paxton plays him with a certain strictness that doesn't allow anyone to embrace him. Beyond that, the biggest problem might be that polygamy does not elicit sympathy. People think it's "weird," and, well, it's not legal either.
How is it, though, that Tony Soprano -- gangster, killer, philanderer, etc. -- became so likable? Bill Henrickson believes in his faith, teaches kindness and morality and spreads the love around. But you never worried if he got caught and went to jail. Or died.
Last year, TLC introduced "Sister Wives," which was essentially a nonfiction version of "Big Love." One man, four wives, 16 kids. Before the series ever went on the air, husband Kody Brown and his wives Meri (the only one he's legally married to), Janelle, Christine and Robyn all met TV critics and reporters in Los Angeles. First question: "Could you tell me exactly where you live?" Answer: "Utah." Question: "Where in Utah?" Answer: "We are just going to leave it as Utah."
Those questions were from a journalist in Utah who then asked the Browns if they knew that what they were doing was illegal. Yes, they said. Kody Brown first used the words "coming out" at that 2010 press tour and, as "Sister Wives" heads into its second season on Sunday, you'll hear the term repeated endlessly. The Browns ultimately went on NBC's "Today" (and other show) to announce they were "coming out" -- something Kody believes in as a way to lessen the stigma. The show was a risky idea that would pay off when everyone saw the love in the house.
But it didn't quite work out that way. Police in Lehi, Utah, where the Browns live, launched an investigation into the family (on charges of bigamy) and have sent their conclusion to Utah prosecutors, who have yet to decide whether to charge Kody.
Season 2 kicks off with an hourlong special looking at what's happened since the Browns have "come out" and their kids have started attending public schools. It's pretty clear that as determined as Kody and his sister wives were to the idea of forcing social change, they didn't really think it out as well as you might imagine. The Browns seem ill-equipped to handle the backlash, and the children are starting to suffer.
And that brings us back to the "Big Love" conundrum. It's hard to feel compassion for them because they knew the risks. If you don't worry what happens to your main character -- the fictional Bill Henrickson or the real Kody Brown -- there's an absolute absence of drama. Lack of compassion -- that's a show killer.
On the other hand, the Browns face a court battle, and the family appears to be fraying. That's the kind of drama that really fuels reality TV.