Relatively low-key compared with HBO’s showier dramas, “Big Love” returns after a “Sopranos”-like 17-month layoff, during which news accounts about a polygamous compound provided a life-imitates-art parallel. Although too late to cash in on that publicity, the show delivers some of TV’s most sharply drawn characters, deftly chronicling the labyrinthine family dynamics created by a guy with three wives — as well as the corporate machinations necessary to feed all those hungry mouths. This season a potential fourth spouse enters the picture, along with moral dilemmas for practically every key player — elevating the series high above its soapy foundations.
Beyond the budding courtship of Ana (Branka Katic), a waitress who family patriarch Bill (Bill Paxton) encountered last time out, this season’s larger theme tackles whether the Henricksons will put their secret existence in the Salt Lake City suburbs at risk to help convict Roman Grant, the polygamous prophet played with sulfurous charm by Harry Dean Stanton. Bill and Roman have clashed before, but their relationship is complicated by Bill’s second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) being Roman’s daughter, plus the fact that Roman’s minions have no compunctions about inflicting collateral damage to secure his freedom.
Ana seems understandably mystified by the prospect of “dating” not just Bill but also her would-be sister-wives: Nicki, the childlike Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) — a stately woman who remains the show’s intriguing center, having acceded to Bill’s choice to begin living “the principle,” adhering to Mormonism’s old polygamous code.
Exec producers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer possess a marvelous knack for dancing right up against the precipice with their narrative arcs without toppling over — aided immeasurably by their talented multigenerational cast, from Tripplehorn’s career-topping work to an older group that in addition to Stanton features Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie as Bill’s beyond-eccentric parents.
Call it fortuitous timing, but this season also yields a strong subplot for Bill and Barb’s daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried, fresh off “Mamma Mia!”), whose pangs of teen rebellion are exacerbated by her family’s absurd situation. Finally, the latest batch of stories sprinkles enticing crumbs about the central quartet’s pasts, from Nicki’s compound upbringing to the family estrangement that led Margene into the fold.
In short, what initially felt like a gimmick actually provides the jumping-off point to an inordinately twisty and absorbing family drama. The only drawback is that “Big Love’s” narrative tree has become such a tangled vine it’s unlikely a novice could hope to join in without some fastidious back-episode watching; still, for a loyal core the series continues to be enormously satisfying — and relatively unsung awards-wise, given its creative merit.
Then again, just as “the principle” teaches that the truest rewards come in heaven, “Big Love” might wind up being even more fully appreciated on DVD and in reruns — TV’s version of the afterlife.