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‘Big Love’: One husband, three wives

HBO’s brash new drama series takes on polygamy
/ Source: The Associated Press

There are so many ways to view “Big Love.”

Seen one way, it’s a domestic comedy distorted by a lens that fleshes out one housewife into three.

Seen another, it’s a male dream in full flower: one man presiding over three attractive women, each of whose beds he shares according to the schedule his wives draft at the dining room table.

“Three days can seem like such an eternity,” sighs Margene, Bill Henrickson’s newest and youngest, when her night comes around.

“Honey, I miss you, too,” he consoles her. “If I don’t say so, it’s ’cause I don’t want Nicki and Barb to think I miss them any less.”

Or could this be a male nightmare: regimented bed-hopping, propelled by Viagra?

Hard to say. “Big Love,” HBO’s brash new drama series (premiering March 12 at 10 p.m. EST), is tricky to sum up.

It’s a meditation on the American dream. Henrickson (played to regular-guy perfection by Bill Paxton) has a family he’s proud of (seven offspring between his trio of mates) and a prospering business: He owns two hardware superstores and is spoiling for a battle on his Salt Lake City home turf with the Goliath of Wal-Mart.

It’s a portrait of faith, not just sex, writ large. Gathered for dinner in the communal backyard of their three abutting homes, the Henricksons join hands as Bill says grace: “Please bless us with good health and a successful store opening. Please bless us all as your loving family sealed together through time and all eternity.”

At certain moments, “Big Love” is funny. However submissive to both Bill and the Lord, the three wives have control issues, which leads to amusing clashes, especially when Bill tries to mediate.

“You chose some toughies,” observes Don, who is Bill’s friend and business associate and a fellow polygamist.

“It’s not easy,” agrees Bill — “staying on top of them, anticipating their needs.”

They are three sometimes satisfied, sometimes desperate housewives coexisting under one big roof:

—Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), a former Homes Plus clerk, is overemotional and childish, even now as she mothers a pair of rug rats.

—Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) is brooding, sneaky and spiritually conflicted, with two kids and an addiction to shopping by phone.

—Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Bill’s wife of 17 years, is the mature, vaguely melancholy mother to all. But cancer left her barren after she bore Bill just three children. His obvious recourse? Take another wife. Then a third.

“You put any thought into a fourth?” Don (Joel McKinnon Miller) wonders aloud.

“Whew,” Bill chuckles wearily. “I don’t think it’s in the cards for us.”

Keeping polygamy a secretJust as well. Bill and his family must keep their marital status under wraps even in Salt Lake City, whose large Mormon population officially banned plural marriage more than a century ago (as the series takes pains to establish, though adding that “20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States”). Among other dangers, public exposure would threaten the Henricksons’ very livelihood: Their stores would likely be blacklisted.

But to the undiscerning eye, the Henrickson flock looks achingly normal in their pristine subdivision, Bill’s shiny SUV at the curb.

They seem all the more normal in contrast to the netherworld Bill and Nicki split from: Juniper Creek, a grim fundamentalist compound out in the sticks. It’s ruled by the messianic “prophet” Roman (the sublimely creepy Harry Dean Stanton), who with his umpteen wives counts 31 children and 187 grandchildren.

Bill condemns “the seediness, the corruption, old men preying on young helpless girls.” Unfortunately, Bill’s schizo parents and ne’er-do-well brother remain in the fold, and Roman is Nicki’s father.

Shades of the old “Godfather” line: “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in”! Bill and his family seem hardpressed to make a clean break from Juniper Creek, especially since Roman fronted Bill some money to start his business. Bill won’t be getting off easy.

“Big Love” should be an oddly comfortable fit with “The Sopranos,” which makes its long-awaited return an hour earlier. But despite the similarities (family tussles, power plays and such), there are obvious differences. For instance, on “Big Love,” the language gets no rougher than “Oh, my heck,” “You dumb-head” and “There’s no way in H I’ll do that.”

With religious fervor, “Big Love” chronicles the struggle to escape an old order, then to pass as conventionally wholesome somewhere new. It’s about making big choices and honoring them.

Including wives. “They’re the path you’ve chosen,” says Don to Bill. “You gotta pray for guidance, walk it with decency.”

On a show full of fascinating murkiness, decency seems the operative reference point. At least, that’s one way of seeing “Big Love.”

In any case, there’s no way in H you should miss seeing it.