At its core, “Big Love” is just a skewed take on a family soap — the concept of a Salt Lake City polygamist living “the principle” with his three wives magnifying small domestic crises into larger, more complicated ones. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely deft twist on marital bliss with a first-rate cast, even if the second season lurches a bit out of the starting gate. Although not the big, breakout drama a “Sopranos”-free HBO could clearly use, the series represents a solid addition to the pay-TV-as-quilt strategy — with each patch tailored to different segments of its subscriber base.
Season two opens ankle-deep in the messes in which the maiden year concluded, as Bill (Bill Paxton) remains embroiled in a power struggle with his creepy father-in-law Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), who presides over the Juniper Creek compound where polygamy is practiced openly.
To the world at large an upstanding suburban businessman, Bill by contrast lives in constant fear of exposure, and his first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is still emotionally wounded from having her lifestyle exposed on the verge of receiving a motherhood award. As such, she’s now questioning every aspect of her life — beginning with her festering anger over Bill’s decision to wed Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) as well.
While the various plot threads unfold assiduously, the dynamics of the Henrickson household(s) are in a tumultuous state of flux. Not only is Barb reevaluating things, but the simple Margene begins asserting herself more, while Nicki wrestles with her conflicting allegiances to husband and father.
At the same time, the Henricksons’ teenagers Ben (Douglas Smith) and Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) each start exploring their sexuality — an especially daunting prospect given their religious convictions and the family’s unusual definition of “marriage” as between a man and any number of women. (In one amusing moment, Roman huffs indignantly about the antigay description of marriage as “a man and a woman” institution.)
That’s only a smattering of the many elements juggled by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, whose peculiar assortment of characters also includes Bill’s wacky mom (Grace Zabriskie) and hapless brother (Shawn Doyle).
It’s not until the third or fourth episode that the latest batch truly gains momentum. Fortunately, the characters are so sharply defined that the central gimmick quickly recedes, and the episodes become compulsively watchable if only to drink in, among other highlights, the best work of Tripplehorn’s career, Goodwin’s buoyant cheeriness and Stanton’s malevolent patriarch.
With HBO introducing several new series over the next few months, the pay net is gambling on “Big Love” to anchor a second night of original programming, and it’s a reasonably savvy choice. Because while this isn’t quite a great show, it’s certainly a refreshing take on the stale conventions of family drama — one that delivers a whole lot to like, if not necessarily love.