, HBO's newest buzzworthy series, recalls Groucho Marx's blithe proposal to two women in Animal Crackers
. "Why, that's bigamy," one of the women exclaims. Groucho responds, "Yes, and it's big of me, too." But Bill Henrickson's (Bill Paxton) situation is hardly a laughing matter. Bill is a modern-day polygamist who lives in suburban Salt Lake City with his seven children and three "sister-wives": Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn, never better), the more mature anchor of the household; Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), who spitefully refers to her as "Boss Lady"; and recent addition Margene (charming Ginnifer Goodwin), insecure and childlike. A series that puts a human face on polygamy is brimming with prurient possibilities. Big Love
's first two episodes are veritable commercials for Viagra, as Bill struggles to keep up with the demands of his spouses, with whom the sleeping arrangements are strictly scheduled. But once this more sensational aspect of "plural marriage" is dealt with, Big Love
moves on to focus on the emotional, spiritual and financial pressures that beset Bill and his families. As the dreamlike opening credit sequence (scored to the Beach Boys' ethereal "God Only Knows") illustrates, Bill is a man on thin ice. He is carrying mortgages on three adjoining homes. A home-improvement store entrepreneur, he has just cut the ribbon on his second store and is planning a third. His wives, not immune to jealousies, vie for dominant position. And then there's Roman (Harry Dean Stanton; and any series that puts this venerable character actor and hipster saint in our homes on a weekly basis deserves our big love), the sinister leader of an outlaw fundamentalist compound, who has an escalating disagreement with Bill over the repayment of his loan that helped Bill build his fledgling empire ("There's man's law," he states ominously, "and there's God's law").
There are further complications that make Big Love so compelling. Bill suspects that his raw-nerved mother (Grace Zabriskie) may be poisoning his father (Bruce Dern). Nicki is a shopaholic accruing nearly $60,000 in credit-card debt. Overtures by new neighbors threaten to expose Bill's unorthodox and illicit living arrangements. The polygamy factor puts a subversive spin on traditional matrimonial melodrama. When Nicki plans her son's disastrous birthday party, her list of "immediate family" tops 150. When Roman, who is Nicki's father, arrives, Bill proclaims he is not welcome in his "homes." As with Rome, Big Love may require a little patience. But this fascinating portrayal of a shadowy subculture, the intelligent writing, and the estimable ensemble will soon make you feel like part of the families. --Donald Liebenson