- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The ick factor doesn’t last nearly as long as you’d think in HBO’s new original drama “Big Love,” debuting Sunday at 10 after the long-awaited return of “The Sopranos.”

The story of a Utah man named Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives promised to be unsettling, at the very least, for those who put their faith in monogamy. Yet the shrewd drama skirts past our discomfort, in part, by making Bill’s parents even more extreme than he. The rest boils down to old-fashioned storytelling as well as a remarkably complex performance by Mr. Paxton.

Henrickson and his trio of wives live in three adjacent homes along a manicured stretch of suburbia. However, Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) share more than a husband: They co-parent seven children, taking the “it takes a village” mantra to radical extremes.

All seems cozy at the outset, but the living arrangements are fraught with bickering. Jealousies simmer over sleeping arrangements, budgetary constraints and parental chores. It’s all Henrickson can do to keep his wives “content” (thanks to a handy Viagra prescription), but he also runs a chain of Home Depot-lite stores on the verge of expansion.

Enter Roman (the cadaverous Harry Dean Stanton), Nicolette’s father and the man who helped finance his son-in-law’s hardware chain in its infancy. He puts more pressure on Henrickson as the chain keeps growing, and in a few short scenes, he emerges as a first-class villain.

He’s also only marginally worse than Henrickson’s quarrelsome parents (Bruce Dern and Grace Zabriskie), who live on a religious compound so strict they don’t believe in modern medicine — or treating their son with a measure of respect.

Mr. Paxton’s Henrickson cares deeply about his wives, but he also displays flashes of arrogance in how he deals with them. Part of that might come with the territory because someone has to lord over his expansive brood. Still, it’s unnerving to watch, especially given how vulnerable young Margene appears.

Sunday’s debut sets all the necessary pieces in motion. But viewers must wait for the second installment to see why this “Love” might be an addictive souffle of cultural clashes — assuming its inherently distasteful subject matter can be compartmentalized.

WHAT: “Big Love”

WHEN: 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO

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