Television

Marc D. Allan

'Big Love' debuts 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO

Bill Paxton, who stars in the new HBO series Big Love (debuting 10 p.m. Sunday), sounds amazingly like Jason Bateman of Arrested Development - so much so that I half expected Bateman's Bluth family to meet up with the Hendricksons of Big Love.

They might fit right in. The Hendricksons aren't nearly as funny, but they're every bit as enjoyable to watch.

Just as the Bluths had their quirks - what with the patriarch George going to jail and most everyone else being wacky, drunk or both - so do the Utah-based Hendricksons. Bill practices polygamy, which is illegal. He has three wives - the practical and steady Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), spendthrift Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and cute, clueless former babysitter Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) - plus seven kids. The women live in adjacent houses and share Bill on a rotating basis.

If trying to build up a chain of Lowes-like home-improvement stores, keep up with the needs and costs of three families AND keep his polygamist lifestyle a secret weren't enough, Bill also must contend with his mother (Grace Zabriskie), who may be trying to kill his father (Bruce Dern). Mom and Dad live in a polygamist compound run by corrupt Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), who believes that polygamy "is God's sacred gift to us." He has 131 children, 187 grandchildren and a new, 15-year-old wife. He also has his hooks in Bill's business and an ongoing scheme to scam elderly people.

If you're looking to Big Love for realism, well, the corruption angle may be over the top. But the show's people and circumstances are fascinating. The polygamist adults teach the children to "stay wholesome" while the men bed multiple partners and, often, young girls. The women believe that "plural marriage teaches us the value of selflessness" and creates a community, but they're also jealous and territorial. In Roman's compound, young males are run off in their early teens so the older men can have their pick of the young girls. "The greatest freedom we have is obedience," one of these girls says. And Nicki's mom (played by Mary Kay Place) advises at one point that Nicki "takes well to a good smacking. That's all she'll listen to sometimes."

You'll likely shake your head in disdain for this lifestyle and its inherent hypocrisies, but Big Love ropes you in anyway. The stories and issues they raise are compelling, the cast stellar and the world they're inhabiting mesmerizing. As the series progresses (I've seen the first five episodes), the world of the Hendricksons becomes fuller and much more complicated.

Their emergence comes just in time. HBO has lost the Fishers (from Six Feet Under, which ended last year), and the Sopranos (who return at 9 p.m. Sunday) will be gone by early 2007. Luckily, the network has its next great family.

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