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It's not hard to relate to ‘Big Love’ family

HBO said goodbye to one dysfunctional family this past weekend and hello to another.With “The Sopranos” now and forever in syndication heaven, HBO offered up the second season of “Big Love” Monday night and there are several reasons to think that, with proper marketing and nurturing, the network might have another hit on their hands. The series was the network's second-most watched last ye
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

HBO said goodbye to one dysfunctional family this past weekend and hello to another.

With “The Sopranos” now and forever in syndication heaven, HBO offered up the second season of “Big Love” Monday night and there are several reasons to think that, with proper marketing and nurturing, the network might have another hit on their hands. The series was the network's second-most watched last year after Tony and crew, and has shown the potential to take a major step forward.

When we left the Henrickson clan at the end of season one, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) was competing in the Mother of the Year contest and was outed as being part of a polygamist family. Turns out it was Juniper Creek prophet Roman Grant who dropped a dime on her as payback for his long-running feud with Barb’s fiercely loyal husband, Bill (Bill Paxton).

Bill, of course, doesn’t limit his marital affection to just Barb but has two additional wives: Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Outside the polygamist culture, it would seem an uncomfortable fit, but credit series creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer for making the Henricksons’ joys and failures as ordinary and familiar as a family with 2.3 kids and a two-car garage on Main Street USA.

That normalcy is what has turned a series that could’ve easily gone the way of a freak show — think HBO’s misfired “Carnivale” — to one that resonates. Despite the odd marital circumstance, there are more similarities to mainstream America here than differences to.

The Henricksons have problems like you and me: how will the bills get paid, where to find quality time with the kids, and how does one rekindle romance when the bliss from those early days of dating and relationship-building are long gone?

But give Bill credit. As much as he has on his plate — keeping his hardware-store empire thriving, making sure the kids are being brought up in a spiritual home and keeping Roman at bay — Bill, overworked and always fatigued, doesn’t parcel out his affection to his three wives in one-thirds. He genuinely loves all three equally, though it’s not hard to figure out that he holds a special place in his heart for Barb, to whom he’s been married for 18 years, 12 of them as his only wife.

Hoping for more character history in season two

The great reveal in episode one is that Barb, though she never hesitates to put her unorthodox family first, was prodded into becoming part of a polygamist family against her will. Bill knew that loyal Barb would go along with this exceedingly unconventional set-up if he pushed her on it, and she did. And now she’s having serious regrets about what she‘s gotten herself into.

The writers have offered up bits and pieces about Barb’s history. We know that she had cancer at one point and that her sister, Cindy, is vehemently opposed to her current lifestyle, often offering to take Barb’s kids away for a day, week or however long she can. The thought of these children accepting a polygamist lifestyle is too much for Cindy to bear, and she’s determined to give them “a proper upbringing.”

But these kids are smarter than anyone gives them credit for, and aren’t looking for Mom (and Mom and Mom) and Dad for all the answers. Barb, Nicki and Bill may not have given them a childhood that they can talk about in school, but they’re all well-adjusted, compassionate and extremely intelligent.

So now that a strong foundation has been set as far as storytelling, let’s dive more into character history in season two. What were those early years of marriage like for Barb and Bill? Why, after 12 years, would he want to start adding wives and take the chance of alienating his true love?

Bill’s family — sourpuss mom Lois (Grace Zabriskie) and lunatic father Frank (Bruce Dern) — are a scary lot and it would make sense that he’d want to distance himself from them, yet he keeps finding himself drawn into their bizarre universe. Maybe there was a seminal event that occurred when Bill was young that keeps him connected to them, something so life-altering that he feels a need to remain close, even when they’re sapping his mental stamina.

And Margene, who wants to be taken seriously but often lacks the maturity required of a married woman, might be the most intriguing character of all. She’s only 21, yet knew she would be a third wife. That’s a lot to ask of someone so young, to choose a communal family and eschew the joy of experiencing a more traditional marriage. Why would she sign on?

Many viewers may have been focused on the prurient details berore the series began. The sexual exhaustion of trying to please all three wives was fully realized in the appropriately titled “Viagra Blue” episode last season, so there’s little reason to head back into Bill’s bedroom as we move ahead.  Now, as Barb questions her place in this multi-partnered relationship, the more interesting topic is the fact that that the women feel as close to one another as they do to Bill.

They’ve bonded emotionally in ways they may not have ever expected. They share Bill but they’re also sharing part of themselves with each other. All three live in separate, neighboring houses, yet they seem to know each other’s whereabouts at all times. And their mental states — at one time, each would be very private and only spoke to Bill about their innermost feelings — are now completely open books.

There are few secrets anymore among the wives, except the one which they must cling to in order to continue this arrangement — the one about being husband and wives.

“Big Love” is so watchable not because we want to see how different the Henricksons are from us, but, rather, what makes us all so similar.

Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. You can reach him at stuart.levine@variety.com