The most striking thing about HBO’s captivating new drama “Big Love” is that it starts in the middle, without pause for background or explanation, chronicling the life of a polygamist and his three wives as if they were just another family, with more complicated issues. It’s a bold move, tossing off crumbs of backstory through the first five episodes. The resulting drama should be broader in its appeal than the pay net’s commercially under-appreciated gems “Rome,” “The Wire” and “Deadwood” — especially with the godfather of dysfunctional families, “The Sopranos,” back to pave the way.
Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) is a home-improvement store owner who does his own Cal Worthington-style commercials. Yet when he comes home to his three adjacent houses, he stealthily exits the garage, and ping-pongs among a trio of wives and seven kids.
Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) was the first wife, derisively dubbed “boss lady” by Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), who has a problem living within the extended family’s budget. Then there’s the simple Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the latest addition, who causes a stir in the second episode because she’s so loud during sex that it risks waking the neighborhood.
Bill is a bit stressed out, and not just because he has to service three women and the plumbing isn’t working properly downstairs. He’s opening a second store, triggering a financial dispute with Nicki’s dad, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), who heads a creepy commune of open polygamists up in the mountains. In addition, Bill’s parents (Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie) provide their own headaches, beginning with mom’s reluctance to seek medical attention for her seriously ailing hubby.
The Hendricksons also worry about drawing undue attention to their illicit lifestyle within their suburban Salt Lake City environs, so a friendly neighbor initiates a small crisis. Scheduling is a problem, too, as the wives regularly convene to divide up Bill’s time, making sure he’s available for every birthday and event.
As with HBO’s best dramas, “Big Love’s” point of differentiation from broadcast TV isn’t defined by its graphic sex scenes. Rather, what’s unusual is how the show allows these relationships to unfold so assiduously, fostering curiosity about what prompted Barb to accept this arrangement.
Similarly, any discussion of the Mormon Church’s history on polygamy must wait until the third episode. And while the premiere carries a disclaimer meant to deflect controversy, it’s hard to imagine protestations or outrage doing anything but helping launch the series.
Paxton is ideally cast, managing to be sympathetic and impenetrable all at once. Ditto for the female leads, who establish their distinct personalities virtually from the get-go.
Credit series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, too, with sustaining a sense of momentum through the episodes previewed without resorting to melodrama. Along the way, there are comical moments (Nicki assures Bill’s hormonally raging teenage son that she “did have 18 brothers growing up”), and perhaps the most uncomfortable birthday party in recent memory.
“Big Love” finds HBO at a big crossroads, desperately needing a new buzzworthy franchise whose appeal extends beyond the bloodthirsty profile of the aforementioned period serials. And if the show is really just “7th Heaven” dressed up with a pay-TV twist, it’s the kind of twist that could keep a discriminating audience coming back for weeks and possibly seasons to come.