Big Love

Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. Six episodes into the first season.

People who worried that HBO’s twisted new family drama, Big Love, would create support for the legalization of plural marriage probably needn’t have bothered. Although the show is sympathetic to the polygamous Hendricksons, it certainly doesn’t make their family structure — one husband, three wives and seven children — look desirable. None of the children see enough of their father, who is spread thin between three households. The patriarch of the family, Bill Hendrickson, is constantly overwhelmed by the needs, both emotional and financial, of his large, segmented family. The sister-wives, unable to completely suppress their natural jealousy, feel neglected and isolated and develop awful passive-aggressive tendencies. But what makes a family dysfunctional and unstable makes a television show dramatic and entertaining. If polygamy created a healthy, secure family unit, Big Love wouldn’t be nearly so intriguing.

The writers of Big Love are weaving together numerous threads with admirable skill, and the cast is one of the strongest currently on TV. As Bill Hendrickson, Bill Paxton expertly projects his character’s self-righteous imperiousness without ever allowing us to lose sight of his good intentions and genuine love for his family. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin play Hendrickson’s wives — Barb, Nicki and Margene — as a claustrophobic sorority trying to make the best of an awkward family arrangement.

The actresses must relish the opportunity to play such complicated women. The show allow Tripplehorn, for example, to be a sexual woman despite the fact that she’s in her 40s — nearly ancient by Hollywood standards. Sevigny often plays the antagonist on Big Love, but she is a pitiably human one. Her character, Nicki, is a compulsive spender, and in one heartbreaking scene, she sits on her bed calculating just how much credit card debt she has accrued. Dismayed at the number, she feebly turns the covers over the piles of damning statements, as if that will wipe away the balance. Sevigny makes that action both infuriatingly childlike and all too recognizable. Goodwin, too, humanizes what could have been a paper-thin stereotype: in her case, the overwhelmed, slightly incompetent young mother. Although her character isn’t much given to introspection, Goodwin makes clear what a terrible bargain this lonely individual made, winning a family but losing the opportunity to build bonds with people outside it.

The lead quartet is uniformly stellar, but the supporting actors are the ones who make Big Love truly memorable. As the menacing leader of the polygamous compound where Hendrickson grew up, Harry Dean Stanton delivers his lines in an oddly quiet tone that paradoxically makes his performance that much more frightening. Grace Zabriskie gives Hendrickson’s mother, a true harridan, a delightfully funny edge without taking cheap shots and unfairly demeaning her. Amanda Seyfried, Bruce Dern, Mary Kay Place, Daveigh Chase, Melora Walters and Shawn Doyle, too, deliver remarkable work. It’s difficult to know whom to single out.

The creators of Big Love clearly have a perceptive eye, for the humanity of the characters shines even in the alien worlds of cultlike rural compounds and overpopulated marriages. Only six episodes into the first season, the series still has plenty of time to take a sharp nosedive in quality, but the evidence thus far and the intriguing plot lines set in motion suggest that Big Love just might earn its name. As for convincing ordinary Americans to take on additional wives, well, that seems considerably less likely.

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