It's no secret that I'm a bit of an eccentric: I was once in a bisexual, multi-partnered, extended "family" that extended over several addresses, generations, and ethnicities, I enjoy French and British Symbolist/Decadent/Camp literature, I've walked around in an extraordinary array of outfits, I've cooked gourmet meals in a motel with only a microwave, a freezer, and a hotplate, am experienced in various forms of experiential religion, and yearn to live as a rural urbanite, growing herbs and raising cats and rabbits. Sometimes, though, I've thought that some of the odder parts of me are how conservative I can be.
I don't like the idea of graffiti art, no matter how clever: it's still vandalism, even if you're Banksy. (I like the Obama HOPE poster, but that's a poster, not a stencil.) Turning various parts of public property into a skate/bike park is OK, as long as your activity doesn't chip stone off benches and spread grease around. Tattoos and piercings don't impress me: to me, making a statement that you're going to be Guy with the Dragon On His Neck or Girl with the Ring on Her Lip forever simply means five or ten years down the line you'll be stuck with some unfashionable blue blotches and holes in places where you'd rather not have them anymore. And no matter how quintessentially Urban Postmodern Hip it is, I just don't like "The Simpsons".
Somehow, the whole idea seems mean-spirited and elitist: Homer and Marge just happen to be upper-working class people just trying to get by, with three kids, a dog and a cat, doing normal, ordinary things, like drinking non-microbrew beer or working at Millstone 3, and I'm supposed to be convulsed with laughter, because they're just so Not Like Us, and therefore, stupid. The problem is, without the frame "This is funny", very little of what they do strikes me as being anything but normal...Lisa's annoying speeches to the contrary notwithstanding.
And then, there's Big Love. For reasons I cannot fathom, the theme music isn't Lyndsay Buckingham's spooky guitar showstopper, but the etherially lugubrious "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys (whose lyrics sound like Brian Wilson was having a really bad day). Ben Henderson (Bill Paxton) works, his wife Barb works also, and Nicky and Margene stay home and take care of seven children. Rich inner lives? Check. Experiential spirituality? Check. Valuing people over materialism and the Spirit over all? Check. A love of the outdoors, and concern for a healthy life-style? Check. A sense of heritage and connectedness that is "authenticity"? Very much so. Nothing particularly wrong, you might think, just a bunch of old hippies in Berkeley, right? Not a chance. This is Sandy, Utah, and the Hendersons are polygamist Mormons.
I know I should be jumping up and down, screaming hysterically that the furniture is ugly and the characters should wake up and learn enough elementary feminist/queer/multicultural theory (the show was concieved by a gay couple) to realize that these poor benighted women are being tortured by the Patriarchy, but all I can say is most of the time, I can't see anything really wrong.
It's a cliche, but it's amazing how people who don't share my tastes in the slightest can be so happy. The Hendersons' triple household is decorated in what could be called Wal-Mart chic, all synthetic glossy fabrics and light polyurethaned wood: even Nicki's spendaholic bedroom and bath seem to have come from a downmarket shopping mall. Neither does anyone wear anything that looks particularly stylish or expensive, and though it's hinted that they occasionally copy recipes from Rachel Ray, and fresh fruit seems eternally on hand, no one is interested in food beyond shopping for it. No one smokes, swears, or drinks anything other than water, milk, punch, fruit juice, or Postum now and then. Yet everyone looks cleanly presentable (at least most of the time) and though the menus might pall (Velveeta, meat, including venison, from the freezer, and canned vegetables) everyone is genuinely happy for each others' company and looks forward to joining hands at grace every evening. The joining of three houselots means that the children have plenty of room to play (I love the fact that the yard is part dirt from kids playing on it), and since toys are held in common, there's always a good selection available. The point I'm trying to make here, is not that they have bad taste, necessarily, but that they just don't think things like design aesthetics are all that important to them: as long as it's cheap enough to buy and does the job, Wal-Mart is as good as Pottery Barn, and in some ways, even better -- Wal-Mart stuff is by definition, a bit countrified, and they're out West, no? Anyway, to do otherwise would mean just a little too much involvement with things as opposed to family or God, and they don't have time or energy for such things....
Since this is a soap opera, however, we find all three wives chafing at their traditional lifestyles: Barb wears contemporary clothing and teaches second graders, Nicki buys things (though her fashion choices might be called Modesty Deluxe), and Margene at one point cultivates a friendship with the mainstream LDS neighbor across the street. The two teenagers have their secrets -- Ben, Jr. struggles with his penis by going to Seminary classes, and Sarah goes to cough-syrup parties and also cultivates an LDS friend. Ben at one point decided to have an affair -- with Barb. In the background looms The Compound at Juniper Creek, run by The Prophet (a countrified Godfather, who just happens to be Nikki's father) where young men are routinely dumped on the streets at 14, young women are "pre-maritally placed" at 15, and the Church owns everything -- you just get to use it. It's also home to Ben's fractious parents, including his spitfire mother, mountain-man father, played brilliantly by Bruce Dern (who doesn't pee into toilets, when the kitchen sink will do), his ex-alcoholic brother (and his unbalanced, borderline-homicidal wife), Nicki's none-too-bright (and quite violent) brother and assorted other wives, siblings, and friends. About the only one who seems to have an altogether unclouded life is Tancy, an eight-year-old Henderson daughter who's a bit of a wunderkind, and has nominated her mom as Mother of the Year.
With so little vice to justify an R rating, HBO has upped the nipple and bum factor, as well as showing on the average, one sex scene an episode (usually Ben forking one or another wife, which gets to be boring as...heck... after the novelty wears off). There's a couple of scenes of group prayer and it's tacitly understood by everyone that God might give revelation to anyone at any minute -- Ben even fasts when he's stressed out. There are secrets, lies, family politics a'plenty, the always-looming threat of exposure, and the inevitable tensions of a closed, inbred society where there just aren't enough women to go around. Small fascinations abound in the varying degrees of observance, from nearly-imperceptible to full-blown: people wearing "Temple garments" in a country-club locker room, women hoeing fields and feeding chickens in long dresses with impeccably bleached handsewn lace collars, cut vs. uncut hair, Nicki's country-girl can-do initiative at doing the needful and fixing appliances (though she often just buys a new one), women's whimsical names, backyard baptisms, the gently anachronistic choice of music, and the general logistics of dealing with a family several times larger than usual.
It's all so...tidy...and all very smooth, and I have to remember...even if I converted, I'd have no place in it, even if they could get past my rather checkered past, what with being barren and 50. I have to remember they're also racist, homophobic, and about fifty years behind the times...that, and the feuding, the claustrophobia....
...but still, their lives are, in their own way kind of hip. Check it out.