Polygamy Really Doesn't Work

"BIG LOVE," which premieres Sunday on HBO, is the network's latest quirky-family series, a sort of "melodramedy" about a man, his three wives and their seven kids (and his toxic parents and in-laws). Bill Paxton is the man, and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin are his wives, which makes him not just a lucky man but a lucky actor.

As well as being very much in the brief tradition of "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos" (whose sixth-season opener precedes "Love"), this tale of modern Mormon-fringe polygamy is cousin as well to the more conventional large households of "The Waltons," "Eight Is Enough," "The Brady Bunch" and "Full House." Which is to say, though it wants to deliver a little shock of the new, it is fundamentally old-school. Even the nosy neighbor across the street from their three-house Salt Lake City suburban compound — the backyard fences have all been taken down — will remind the TV-literate viewer of Gladys Kravitz in "Bewitched."

There are good things in it, some well-written scenes and dynamic exchanges and excellent acting — it does the world the favor of returning Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Dern, Mary Kay Place and Grace Zabriskie to the screen, all at the same time, and that is reason enough to send the producers and casting director a nice box of chocolates. Whenever any of these old pros are in the picture, the show becomes twice as lively and three times as real. But, ultimately, it doesn't cohere or quite convince. And notwithstanding a bit of pro forma prayer, over dinner or over hunting rifles, no one here seems authentically religious. The series feels written from the outside.

Mark V. Olsen ("Cabrini USA") and Will Scheffer ("In the Gloaming") are the series creators, with Tom Hanks its celebrity co-executive producer, and they have done some research, even on the fact that there's an Old Spaghetti Factory at Trolley Square, Salt Lake City's main mall. They've mastered the vocabulary — "the principle," "sister-wife," like that — and given Stanton's character a definite resemblance to the late "prophet" Rulon Jeffs, the sinister, controlling, child-marrying leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The mainstream Mormon Church put the lid on "plural marriage" more than 100 years ago on the way to Utah's statehood.) Also made part of Paxton's back story is that sect's recently reported practice of exiling boys as young as 13 from the community — here called Juniper Creek — presumably to keep young women available for the older men.

The main problem is Paxton, or rather Paxton's character, who, though he expends a lot of energy, remains a cipher. As the center around which all revolves, he's primarily reactive, and nearly everyone in his orbit is more interesting and stronger than he is. He's been given no inner life to speak of, and scarcely an outer one — apart from the Home Depot-style hardware stores he owns and loves, it's hard to say what matters to him or what he thinks about. He seems to barely notice his children, except for his oldest son, whom he takes hunting. Ozzie Nelson was a more involved dad. He visits each wife's house in turn, dutifully popping Viagra as if, after money, sex were primarily what was expected of him. (This being HBO, sex is what's expected of him. This is not a show that will be watched by the people it's about.)

The women are terrific in their parts, but except in passing moments, usually the quiet ones, the parts don't really connect. First wife Tripplehorn keeps order and wants a life outside the house; second wife Sevigny, the daughter of Stanton's character, wears traditional "prairie garb" that covers her from neck to ankle and runs up enormous credit-card debt, though nobody seems to notice she's got $50,000 worth of more stuff than anyone else; and baby wife Goodwin walks around in her underwear, plays the stereo loud and wants a friend. Apart from Paxton and Tripplehorn, who are the alpha couple — and in the fifth and best of the five episodes available for review have an affair with one another; that is, they cheat on the other wives — it isn't clear why they're all together or what they give each other. Mostly they bicker, pull rank, stew in resentment, dissemble and delegate. (They can, however, make four for bridge.)

There is supposed to be some comedy in this — as if one wife weren't enough! — and the soundtrack music often indicates perky wackiness.

The production design, by Dan Bishop (who also worked on HBO's "Carnivàle" and Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train") is the opposite of splashy, all calm colors and softened edges, as if to underscore that this is just another normal American TV family.

'Big Love'

Where: HBO

When: 10 to 11 p.m. ET Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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