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So Happy Together: "Big Love"

I was skeptical at first that HBO could pull it off. Granted they've made audiences love mobsters, morticians, and circus freaks, so why should polygamists be any different? Yet after two episodes of Big Love, I am already won over by the show's fantastic interpersonal relationships, tense drama, and yes, even humor. (Just don't call them Mormons.)

Here's the 411 on the series so far: Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) seems to live a normal life in suburban Salt Lake City. He has a thriving hardware business, beautiful kids, and--oh--three wives. Each night, Bill returns home to negotiate a complicated schedule where each of the wives gets to share him for a day and a night. Helping matters is the fact that all three of his houses are conveniently next door to one another and share one backyard, protecting Bill from wary neighbors. But negotiating the emotional minefield that is his marriage(s) is a little more difficult as Bill has to deal with stress from his three wives--"boss lady" Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), shopaholic Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), and downtrodden Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin)--their seven kids, his three new houses, and the grand opening of his newest hardware store.

And did I mention that someone is poisoning his estranged polygamist father (Bruce Dern)? While Bill suspects it's his kooky mom (Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriskie, again proving that she can play scary) feeding him arsenic in her homemade soup, a more likely suspect is cult leader Roman (Harry Dean Stanton, himself also a David Lynch standby, and for good reason), who oversees the fundamentalist compound where Bill's parents live... and, even more interestingly, is the father of Bill's wife Nicki.

Due to some "bad blood," Bill is estranged from his parents (his dad throwing him out of the back of a pickup truck at age fourteen to fend for himself didn't help things) and has lately rubbed scary cult leader Roman the wrong way over the new store. Roman had given Bill a bit of an investment on the first store and wants to keep receiving 15 percent of everything Bill has... or he'll take it out on Bill's family. As if Bill didn't have enough to worry about, he now has to hire a security consultant to safeguard the houses.

Meanwhile, unaware of Bill's problems, his wives squabble about anything and everything. Who gets the car, who gets to redo their house, who gets spending money, who gets more time with Bill. It's an interesting and unique situation that allows the women to alternatingly act supportive and catty as jealousies, resentments, and vendettas bubble up in each episode.

It's rare that I actually like Jeanne Tripplehorn in a role, but she wins me over here as "boss lady" Barb, Bill's first wife. Why Barb allowed Bill to invite other wives into their marriage is a mystery as much as what happened at the compound to alienate her and Bill from Roman's flock. A cancer survivor, Barb seems to be the most attuned to Bill and is the natural den mother, but Tripplehorn gives her a steely resolve lurking just beneath the surface. I'd keep my eye out for Chloe Sevigny's Nicki, the most deceitful and manipulative of the bunch. In last night's episode, she had sex with Bill in Margene's house, on Margene's bed, and tried to cover it up. A depressed Margene confronted Bill, who first told her off, only to return and eloquently tell her how important she is and how she had completed his family. And then, breaking the mood, sweet Margene asks Bill again for a car.

The supporting characters also manage to deepen the story and provide countering viewpoints. Teenage daughter Sarah (Veronica Mars' Amanda Seyfried) works a fast food job when she's not looking after the zillions of kids running around the Henrickson home(s). There she meets perky new employee Heather Tuttel (Veronica Mars' Tina Majorino, whom you might also remember from her wonderful turn in Napoleon Dynamite), a devout Mormon and proselytizer whose father happens to be a state trooper, a fact that makes Sarah instantly suspicious of her. When Heather overhears a comment about Sarah having "three mommies," she tries to get her to join her faith group and talks endlessly about her good works. But ultimately Heather just wants to be friends with Sarah and promises she won't tell her father about Sarah's polygamist parents. But she also makes it clear that she definitely doesn't approve of polygamy. Neither it seems does Sarah, a fact that I am sure will come into play as the season progresses.

(Meanwhile, it was a nearly a Veronica Mars mini-reunion on Big Love this week when Kyle Gallner guest starred last night as eldest son Ben's friend Jason, himself the child of polygamists and the son of Bill's business partner.)

Ultimately, Big Love is the perfect Sunday night dinner, serving up a deft mix of family drama, cult thriller, off-kilter dramedy, and sociological commentary. And already, just two episodes in, I'm wedded to the series.

"Big Love" airs Sunday evenings at 10 pm on HBO.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: King of Queens/How I Met Your Mother (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC); Related (WB); Wife Swap (ABC); Prison Break (FOX); One on One/All of Us (UPN)

9 pm: Two and a Half Men/The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS); The Apprentice (NBC); Related (WB); Supernanny (ABC); 24 (FOX); Girlfriends/Half & Half (UPN)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); Medium (NBC); Miracle Workers (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

9:00 pm: The Apprentice.

Okay, granted I was naughty last week and amid the fun of Aspen and the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, decided not to watch Apprentice after all (I ended up TiVo'ing that second episode of Old Christine), but old habits die hard, as they say, and I'll be tuning in this week. Which icy blonde will be by the Donald's side this week? Will it be stalwart confidante Carolyn? Or feisty daughter Ivanka?

9:30 pm: Old Christine.

Because it's actually a traditional sitcom that you can watch and not loathe yourself when the closing credits roll. Which, in this day and age, is a rarity.

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