Big Love

Drama Series: The new breed

HBO coined the phrase “Family. Redefined.” to promote “The Sopranos,” but those words ring even truer for the cable channel’s newest Sunday drama, “Big Love.”

Skein is about a Utah polygamist with three wives, hardly a typical American family. But, then, what is a “typical” American family anymore?

Creators-executive producers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer devised the premise while driving home cross-country after a family Christmas. Olsen explains that the polygamy angle was a way to explore “this beloved train wreck … the big, extended family, people living in close proximity to each other, the kind of family that has been torn asunder in the past 20 or 30 years in America. That’s the family I grew up with, this multilayered, multigenerational mess that was really quite wonderful.”

Although close-knit, the Henricksons of “Big Love” are social outcasts; polygamy is against the law. Can this family be viewed as a metaphor for other nontraditional (and persecuted) unions?

Says Olsen, the show was “intended to be a sort of Rorschach” into which viewers can read what they choose.

Olsen and Scheffer took three years to hone their idea, with only one destination for it in mind. “This was HBO or bust,” says Olsen.

The casting process had an auspicious start when Chloe Sevigny committed to play middle wife Nicki after reading an early draft of the pilot. The creators based the secretive, lofty Nicki on Sevigny’s Oscar-nominated performance as Lana Tisdel in the film “Boys Don’t Cry.”

“There’s this sense of her being a princess,” Scheffer says of Nicki. “She is a character that people love to hate, but we loved her all along.”

As for the casting of Bill Paxton as Bill Henrickson, Olsen says, “There’s not a large pool of people who have the likability factor, which is so important. We were floundering. When Bill came in the room, we knew … this is the guy.”

The “likability factor” also is evident in the show’s refreshing underplaying of its unusual material. “Big Love,” say its creators, has “a tone all its own.”

“There’s a bigness of heart to it, without being saccharine,” says Scheffer. “We wanted to find the love there.”

“We didn’t want to be glib or cynical,” says Olsen. “We felt that was so 1990s.”

THE WRAP

Best episode: “Affair.” For the unforgettable moment when Bill Henrickson watches first wife Barb charm community leaders at a fund-raising luncheon, and his face reflects the thunderstruck tenderness of a man falling in love all over again.

Most complex character: Second wife Nicki. She’s selfish and manipulative, but she defends her family with the ferocity of a she-wolf.

What should happen next season: The writers should shed more light on Bill’s “dark” past; Henrickson teens Ben and Sarah should grapple with their feelings about polygamy.

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