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May 13, 2006 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | May 13, 2006 |

[Author’s note: Last week I included a reference to something that occurred on “24” over two months ago and was scolded by at least one reader and the publisher of Pajiba for giving away a “spoiler.” So let me be very clear here that this article will be discussing the first episode of the new season of “The Sopranos” as well as the premiere episode of “Big Love.” If you haven’t seen them yet, particularly “The Sopranos,” you seriously need to stop reading this right now and go read about the trials and tribulations of living at home when you’re in your 30s. Seriously. Consider yourself warned.]

It’s no secret that HBO’s “The Sopranos” (Sundays, 9 p.m. EST/PST) has always been about families, of both the Cosa Nostra variety and the just-as-lethal blood variety. As the show returned to us last night, it was clear that both of Tony Soprano’s families were in moments of relative quiet calm before a likely storm. Set about a year after last season (which itself last aired, lo those many moons, almost two years ago), things seem to be going well for Tony. On the business front, even though Johnny Sack is in the clink awaiting his federal trial, the New Jersey and New York families are getting along cordially, as New York boss pro tem Phil Leotardo is letting bygones be bygones. Although Tony complains about never getting any lucky breaks, the two inside informers who could, unbeknownst to him, cause him some serious RICO agita, have been deus ex machina‘d to go sleep with the Big Pussies. The money seems to be flowing, business seems to be doing fine, and except for an unfortunate misunderstanding involving Hesh’s son-in-law getting beaten and, in Final Destination-like style, macked on the road, there doesn’t appear to be too much violence going on.

Woe be to you, of course, who thinks this is going to last. As the premiere followed stupid Gene’s (the skinny dude who got made with Christopher way back when and who, at the end of this episode, couldn’t even manage to hang himself properly) foolish attempts to extricate himself from the family, it became clear that the post “Celebrity Fit Club” Vito, if nobody else, has sights on taking over at the head of the table. He’s clearly in the middle of the NY/NJ thing, as he has some connection with Phil. And while I may be totally wrong on this, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re going to see some drama between him and Tony’s son-in-law-to-be (Finn, who caught Vito gobbling some security guard knob) which will end up bringing Meadow (the “guardian angel,” as noted in the William S. Burroughs spoken-word piece that opened the show) into the game and thereby squarely pitting Vito against Tony (assuming Tony is still alive ― more on that below). We may even see Meadow get a little medieval on some asses ― I vaguely recall a scene a while back during a wake, I believe, where she showed that the omertà was deeply ingrained into her as she tore into some other folks for talking out of turn and not appreciating what The Family does (you’ll forgive me for not remembering the specifics ― I think that season aired while I was still in diapers). As she trains to get her law degree, I can’t help thinking that down the road she might make an excellent consigliere (perhaps to Christopher if/when he takes over).

Things on the home front look to be about to boil over, too. Although the rekindled marriage appears to be going well, there’s definitely going to be trouble with Carmela. She’s rubbing her financial excesses in the noses of less-fortunate women, and that can’t bode well. Add in lingering suspicions about Tony’s fidelity (and who here really thinks he won’t be getting his pipe cleaned somewhere else before this season is over?), the troubles with her cheap father and the spec house, and the ghosts of Adrianna (perhaps hinting that Carm is eventually going to put together that Tony had her rubbed out?), and you know that things ain’t gonna’ be rosy for long. The bigger family problem, however, is going to be with the ever troublesome Janice. Up to her usual manic-depressive bitchy shenanigans, she already appears to be on Tony’s last nerve, and she’s not helping Engineer Bobby out any in his attempts to climb the corporate ladder. Tony and Janice have been building to a boiling point for years now, and there’s no way that shit isn’t coming to a head before all is said and done.

Of course, the biggest family problem is poor Uncle Junior. His dementia has taken a more tragic turn from the comedy it was played for last season (remember his delusional confusion at thinking that an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was a video feed of him and Bobby?), leading to the episode’s shocking conclusion of Tony taking a gut shot. The lack of previews for next week’s show was clearly to help build up the suspense about whether Tony will live or die. While I wouldn’t put it past Chase to whack Tony in the first episode (and he’s hinted in the past that Tony may not survive the show), I don’t think this last season will be a Tony post mortem. I would’ve thought differently if he had not managed to get through to 911 (doesn’t matter that he wasn’t able to talk to them — they can generally trace where a landline call is coming from, and stomach gunshot wounds give you a fair amount of painful time to bleed out). But even though I’m kind of rooting for him to be gone (could be fascinating to watch both families deal with the narm-like aftermath), I think he’ll be back to eat sushi another day.

In any event, the point of all of this is that the show’s highly trumpeted return to the pop-cultural zeitgeist was solid. To read other critics’ gushing reviews based on screening three or four of this season’s episodes, we are in for a fantastic season. I’m still a little skeptical on that front — the premiere was solid, yes, but not spectacular. And aside from Tony getting shot, no real storylines were developed as of yet, so it’s hard to judge where the show is going on this final-season ride. But I’m on board and cautiously optimistic that the show will return to the glory of its first two seasons.

However this last season of “The Sopranos” plays out over its 20 episode span (which, don’t forget, is broken up between a 12-episode run now and an 8-episode run next January), it’s clear that Tony’s families are both going to be a major pain in his 280-pound ass. Bill Henrickson, the patriarch of the new “Big Love” (HBO, Sundays, 10 p.m. EST/PST) has a smaller ass, but just as much family trouble. As the husband to three wives, you might think things would be grand, if for no other reason then he gets to rotate between having sex with three different women (including one of my long-time crushes, Jeanne Tripplehorn). Well, as we learned in last night’s premiere, this polygamy thing ain’t exactly all gravy. It means poor Bill has three wives and families to provide financial support to. More significantly, it means he’s got three wives and families to provide emotional support to. Add in three times the wifely grief, headaches and nagging, and compound that with the fact that the wives can get manipulative, catty and jealous amongst themselves, and it’s no wonder that Bill needs to use the ol’ Viagra to get it up anymore.

For those who missed the premiere, the show’s setup, while not necessarily standard or commonplace, is pretty straightforward. Bill Henrickson (played well and sympathetically by Bill Paxton, though he’ll always be Wyatt’s asshole brother, Chet, to me) was raised in a polygamous commune out-branch of the Mormon Church (which, as the show is careful to point out amidst real-world controversy, banned polygamy over 115 years ago). He and his first wife, Barb (Tripplehorn), married and left the commune, setting up shop in a Utah suburb. The details of how Bill went from one wife to three are not entirely clear yet, but it appears that he and Barb brought a second wife, Nicky (Chloe Sevigne, Boys Don’t Cry and the unfortunate sucker of Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny) into the fold after Barb had uterine cancer and could no longer conceive children. That was six years ago, and sometime between then and now, the Henrickson family added a third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, Walk the Line). The three wives and their respective children live in three standard homes, which Bill has tricked out with a fenced-in-but-shared backyard, allowing them to have all-inclusive family dinners and allowing Bill to freely venture between the houses, obscured from the intrusive eyes of the ever-watchful suburban neighbors.

The “regular” trials and tribulations that come with running three households appear to be only the beginning of Bill’s familial woes. His father, who still lives with his mother on the commune, is sick from arsenic poisoning, which Bill suspects his mother of perpetrating. He’s being hounded by Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), the head of the commune and Nicky’s father, who claims entitlement to 15 percent of all of Bill’s earnings, in perpetuity. And it appears that he’s going to have to deal with the continuing burdens of hiding his family’s arrangements from both general society and the Mormon Church. That’s a lot to be on one guy’s plate, especially when he doesn’t have any capos, like Tony, to dole the menial chores out to.

What’s interesting about this show is that, as with most of HBO’s dramatic fare, the characters are all largely understandable, relatable and sympathetic, despite the lack of any at-first-glance similarity between them and the viewer. Just as I do not initially appear to have anything in common with a paranoid mob boss, a repressed funeral home director, a settler of the Old West, or a Baltimore drug cop or street dealer, the last time I checked, I don’t have three wives either. Yet, the Henrickson family is strangely relatable despite its nontraditional arrangement. The key here, as with just about any successful story involving characters that differ from the audience, is that the show does not appear to judge the characters. They are who they are, and the actors and the writers are OK with that. Keeping that monkey off their back allows them to focus on the humanity of the characters and once you, the viewer, allow yourself to simply accept the polygamy, the Henricksons really aren’t that different from you or your family.

As with many of HBO’s shows, “Big Love” started off at a slow pace. And as with HBO’s other shows, I’m willing to be patient and see how this is going to play out. There was enough thrown out there in the premiere to suggest that by the time all is said and done, this show may build up to something very good, if not something as wonderful as “Six Feet Under” or “Deadwood.” And considering how many lousy shows are out there which don’t even offer such potential, I’ll take it. If nothing else, Sunday nights on HBO for the next few months are going to be a constant reminder that, as much as you think your family sucks, some families suck harder. So sit back for a couple of hours and be glad that you don’t run a crime family or a three-wife family, and don’t think about the fact that Monday is right around the corner and you’re going to have to get back to your own grind. Unless you are a don or a polygamist, in which case, more power to you.

Seth Frelich is a television columnist for Pajiba. He lives in Washignton, D.C. and couldn’t be happier that summer “intern season” is finally here.

"The Sopranos" & "Big Love" / The TV Whore

May 13, 2006

TV | May 13, 2006 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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