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The Sydney Morning Herald

A peek at polygamy

Author: Ruth Ritchie
Date: 21/06/2008
Words: 740
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Spectrum
Page: 10
Oh, the endless fascination with other, stranger people's lives.

Big Love

SBS, Saturday, 8.30pm

Northanger Abbey

ABC, Sunday, 8.30pm

Brothers and Sisters

Seven, Sunday, 9.30pm

BACKSTABBING suburban poly- gamists make brilliant subject matter for television. They're like the Amish but with loads of complicating sex for added spice. Big Love has the same magic ingredients as most other successful HBO products. We're just interested in having a good stickybeak into other people's lives. How much more interesting if those people are undertakers or gangsters or mild men from Utah with a few too many wives.

It was always the humble, vulnerable moments in The Sopranos that gave the wildly violent and racy drama its heart. And it was not the sudden deaths, although they were a treat, but the moments between siblings that resonated most with viewers of Six Feet Under. At least on Big Love, with three quite different wives, there's a good chance the audience will relate to one of the women.

Every tedious but recognisable element of suburban life is heightened and magnified on Big Love. If we thought it was hard to be a teenage girl misunderstood by the world, just try being the teenage girl with three mothers and 186 uncles, all of whom feel they can stroke her hair while she's with her boyfriend.

They're freaks all right but they are freaks with pen holders on the pockets of their nice, neat, short-sleeved shirts. The world of Big Love is entirely conservative and tucked in. They have a drip-dry, permanent-press, buy-in-bulk simplicity that contrasts so wildly with the extremity of their family structure. We watch, fascinated, because every episode of Big Love reminds us that we really have no idea of what's going on next door, up the road, right under our noses. And the lesson here: never trust men who look like Bill Paxton.

As the makers try desperately to create an air of mystery about the dastardly deeds at Northanger Abbey, we, the audience, know it's about as scary as a ninja turtle. A dreadful father learns nothing, while his children are wise beyond his years. A very bad brother and a very good brother (these second brothers need a support group and a trust fund) get what they deserve in the end, after some slightly inconvenient ordeals.

I didn't mind loping about boring old Bath in Persuasion but it's a total yawn a week later in Northanger Abbey. We appear to be halfway through a run of Austen Sunday nights. Without a really firm hand, these empire-line frock shows are little better than Posh Country Home And Away. Under no circumstances should anyone get dazed and confused by Billie Piper's buck teeth in Mansfield Park on Sunday night. She should get back in the Tardis and leave period dramas for the slight girls who look as if they mightn't cope with consumption.

Halfway between Austen and the polygamists is Brothers And Sisters. Sally Field's mother to the way- ward adult chicks is every bit the Jane Austen matron, all the better since her rather faulty husband (nearly polygamist - with that other secret family for 20 years) shuffled off. In a convenient genius stroke, that sixth kid seems to not be related, so that the drug-addict loser third son can find love, not Tasmanian love, with his ex-sister. Meanwhile the second son (the nicest and gay - could be a clue to the niceness of second sons in Austen novels) is marrying a caterer. The first son and the third son both slept with the same girl who seems to have vanished. The father's mistress of 30 years is in business with the first son, hated by the divorced second sister and largely ignored by the eldest fascist sister who is undergoing IVF with her ex-brat-pack husband.

Of course, that's California. But right here, somewhere on religious TV, just before dawn, a man who looks like an ageing Bill Paxton is advertising "Miracle Manna". The manna is free, except for postage and handling. And the lucky recipients are shown one after another, tripping over large amounts of free money. Cheques for $15,000 or $42,000 fall, a lot like manna, into their laps. And somebody, not as strange as the Walkers on Brothers and Sisters or as secretive as any of the wives on Big Love, is picking up the phone and ordering some of that stuff this weekend. Suddenly Utah doesn't look so silly, really.

TV programs, Pages 50-51.

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