'Big Love'

"It's so subversive, but with the family values, it's almost a throwback to the early '60s. ... But it's so damn bizarre because we're polygamists." - Bill Paxton (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

"Big Love" has been blazing through its third season. Will Scheffer, who created the show with Mark V. Olsen, his partner in work and husband in life, said, "Everything that we hinted at, that we were building to, we said: 'Let's just do it -- let's go as far as we can this year and burn through it.' "

The results: Love has ebbed a bit for now, and we have been left with big. The polygamous Henricksons -- Bill ( Bill Paxton), Barb ( Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) -- have fought over birth control, the fleeting affections of a fourth wife and, most of all, the continuous and escalating tension between their sparkling suburban lives and the filthy Mormon fundamentalist compound that haunts them.

In an e-mail, Olsen wrote: "It's important, clearly, that our characters aren't singularly snarky or sour all the time, and there's got to be an underlying love and devotion between them, but the fact that I may love you, or whomever, is just not particularly interesting unless it's blended with the fact that you really piss me off too -- it's that combustion, negotiating that mix of feelings that I think keeps an audience coming back for more."

Yes. And also: "It was about a family staying together," Scheffer said on the telephone. "And I think what we finally got is, this family will stay together."

Despite a cast that sometimes appears to be thousands, Scheffer said: "The scenes, still, you most want to see are between the four married people. Because we love them."

Those four married people, the Henrickson quadrangle, provide the axis of "Big Love" (9 p.m. Sundays on HBO). In a roundtable discussion, the actors talked about their characters, polygamy as metaphor and how the show's fictions have intersected with real-world news.

This season in particular, every episode is packed with an incredible amount of plot.

Chloë Sevigny: We would sit at the table read and be like: "Is this serious? Is all of this going to remain?"

Jeanne Tripplehorn: By the eighth or the ninth episode, I remember having to write down what had already happened.

Sevigny: It was "Big Love" on crack.

Tripplehorn: Steroids.

Ginnifer Goodwin: We need some "Big Love" Ritalin. This show films like a movie: 14, 16 hours a day. Now we're doing what, six months straight?

Tripplehorn: I've never hit a wall like I did with this season. I mean, I was baked.

Bill Paxton: Oof, me too. I started smoking again.

"Big Love" has a unique tone, simultaneously funny and sad. Is that a hard balance to achieve?

Tripplehorn: I think it's a really grounded humor. We have to pull ourselves back. When we're trying to be funny it doesn't work.

Sevigny: But the lines -- you have to say them so flat because they're so funny.

Goodwin: I think what makes it so relatable is there is something so real, even though this is a drama, about how funny these situations are. In real life, people don't try to live dramatically, people try to live in a light way. People try to laugh.

Sevigny: I was watching some episodes the other night and I was like, "This is the weirdest show I've ever seen in my life!" And then my friend was over, and she said, "Yeah, weirdest show since 'Twin Peaks.' " As normal as we play it, as straight as we play it. But you can't. It's weird!