The Merry Wives of Bill

HBO’s triple-headed Big Love.

Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Chloë Sevigny in HBO’s Big Love

Bill Henrickson—a self-made man, a father of seven, a husband of three—has a three-panel mirror in one of his three master bathrooms, and we see him there, brushing his teeth in his tighty-whities, in the premiere of Big Love (HBO, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET). This glimpse of Bill in triptych is a flash of the quiet wit that the show tickles you with several times an episode. After all, wouldn’t Bill—a guy with wives installed in three adjacent houses in suburban Salt Lake City—see himself a bit differently in the eyes of each spouse? Big Love works as well as it does, which is fairly well, because it’s thoughtful and playful, and it approaches its sensational subject with restraint. Even its easy jokes are low-key, which is maybe why it seems clever, rather than a groaner of a throwaway joke, that the housewares emporium Bill owns is called Henrickson’s Home Plus.

Bill Paxton plays Henrickson with a sales manager’s smile. The grin will convince you that, sure, after getting run off from a fundamentalist community out in the sticks, as teenage boys will, Bill was able to convert himself into an SUV-steering burgher. (This is where I cringingly regurgitate HBO’s disclaimer that the Church of Latter-Day Saints banned polygamy in 1890 and explain that both Henrickson and the leaders of the sect he came from are therefore heretics.) Bill’s sense of command—a kind of charismatic paternalism—should seduce you into believing that three pretty women would sign up as his brides. He believes he’s doing God’s will by being fruitful and multiplying, but there are also hints that he married the first wife for love, the second for money, and the third for sex.

Bill got hitched to Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) 17 years ago. She looks like a standard-issue soccer mom and works as a substitute teacher. At some point, after having survived cancer and having a hysterectomy, she allowed Bill to take a second wife. That’s Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), who dresses like Laura IngallsWilderand shops like Emma Bovary. Nicki is the daughter of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), and the thing about Grant is that he’s got 30 other kids. The main man in Bill’s hometown, he owns a 15 percent stake in Henrickson’s Home Plus for some reason having to do with Barb’s medical bills. Now, with the store expanding to a new location, Grant wants a cut of that, too, and he’s righteous about it, which you might expect of a man called “The Prophet.” The youngest wife is Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who started out in customer service at the store and then became the baby-sitter. Margene must be in her 20s, but she can behave like she’s as young as 16, or 6.

The three share a backyard on a block that looks like any orderly Nowheresville, splitting chores, scheduling Bill’s Viagra-assisted sleepovers, giving one another morning kisses on the cheek. By turns, they are supportive and competitive, passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive. A good part of the drama extends from their rivalries. Nicki taunts Barb, who controls the purse strings, as “boss lady”; Margene cheeses off Barb and Nicki with a high-decibel orgasm at the breakfast hour; both Barb and Margene have to negotiate the considerableego of Nicki, played by the marvelous Sevigny with a kind of neurotic hauteur. Her performance is reason enough to check out the show.

While Big Love doesn’t yet look like anybody’s Twin Peaks—the early episodes are sometimes a touch predictable and too tightly focused on the bedroom(s)—part of its appeal is that it unfolds in something of a David Lynch universe. While the adults go around with euphemisms in their mouths (“dang,” “dumbhead,” “go to H”) and the kids worry about whether to make out at the drive-in, ashen Roman Grant stalks around with his bolo tie, his child bride, and his violent aura. He’s a preacher and a gangster at once, a surreal shard of Americana. Even better are the clues that the show, among other ambitions, wants to be an inquiry into how to live. Take, for instance, a moment in the third episode, when Bill presents Margene with the car she’s been pouting for. She squeals like it’s Christmas morning, and he counsels, “Now remember, stewardship, not consumption, is the proper relation to material wealth.” To repeat, Big Love is not about Mormonism, but it may have aspirations to bring Buddha to prime time.