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'Big Love' on HBO

TELEVISION REVIEW

This creative gem returns for its third season with nary an Emmy to its name, but early episodes looks stronger than ever.

January 16, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

One of life's great mysteries, along with why childbirth has to hurt so much and what exactly is in a plain bagel to make it so fattening, is how HBO's "Big Love" can be entering its third season without an Emmy to its name.

If there's a better written, better acted, more originally conceived show on television, I defy you to name it. Sure, virtually every character is a polygamist, but cable TV is all about exploring the humanity of folks you might not want to invite to dinner. Serial killers, pot moms, corrupt cops and mobsters of all variety get their fair share of nominations and wins while "Big Love" thus far has gone without.

In a just world, the third time will prove to be the charm. Fans have waited long enough -- the writers strike kept the show from its original summer return date. But it seems to have been worth it. This season, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, promises to be the best yet, as the Henricksons are forced to stand up for who they are. As soon as they figure that out.

With Roman, the Juniper Creek prophet and patriarch played by Harry Dean Stanton, in jail, local tolerance for polygamists has grown increasingly thin. And for good reason: More women are recounting brutal tales of forced marriage. Bill (Bill Paxton), Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) begin to feel increasingly threatened. Though they are no fans of Roman's, his trial will only bring more scrutiny to their pre-fab triptych, especially considering that Nicki is Roman's daughter.

Eventually, however, they will each face a choice. No longer is it enough for any of them to blindly follow the Principle. The family members must reexamine their relationship to Juniper Creek and the modern world, reconsider the reasons they live as they do and come to some understanding of what it means for the future.

That, of course, is the larger journey. Episodically, all the fun happens in the meanwhiles. Nicki remains torn between her love of Bill and loyalty to her father -- although she realizes her identity makes her a danger, still she works with her scheming mother, Adaleen (Mary Kay Place), to out and thwart the women who have agreed to testify.

Bill is still struggling to find a place in the world for Weber Gaming, Barb remains at odds with her sister and mother, and Bill's mother (the incomparable Grace Zabriskie) seems to have gone around the bend, while his brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) has made his crazy wife, Wanda (Melora Walters), even crazier by marrying again. Among Gen Y, the always plotting and creepy Rhonda (Daveigh Chase) is no healthier, and the older Henrickson children have secrets and troubles of their own.

Oh, and as if this weren't enough, Bill is thinking about expanding the family -- Ana (Branka Katic) is back, by popular demand, offering viewers a chance to see exactly how a whitebread like Bill gets a regular woman to agree to this whole thing.

Only Margene seems to be in a better place than when last seen; she has a new baby, is Bill's official Weber gaming wife and no longer feels the need to walk around in baby doll dresses. Go, Margene!

Many shows over the years have attempted to redefine family, but it's hard to imagine one that pushes quite so hard at our cultural and emotional borders without leaving viewers feeling bruised, conned or forgotten in the quest to be edgy.

While the very premise of "Big Love" seems designed to keep viewers at a distance, as if we were watching a strange culture depicted in a National Geographic special, creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer will have none of that. Come in, they say, come in and have a cup of tea. Love, loyalty, division of labor, sacrifice, morality, parenting -- the prism may be polygamy, but the themes are universal.

What makes "Big Love" so compelling is not the extremity of its situation but its insistence that the most wildly disparate people can share feelings and flaws, long-guarded secrets and hoarded desires.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Big Love'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

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

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