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TELEVISION REVIEW

Fine new series explores monogamy and faith

Series about polygamy asks what you say after 'I do,' 'I do,' 'I do'

Ah, TV suburbia, where widows deal pot (''Weeds"), where residents chain up bad boys in their basements (''Desperate Housewives"), and now, on ''Big Love," where Sarah has three mommies.

Apparently, there's a sale on eccentricity at the mall.

But in ''Big Love," HBO's fine new series, polygamy is not played for laughs and ridicule. Creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer refuse to invite smirks at the expense of Mormon Bill Henrickson, his trio of wives, and their seven kids. The family's three conjoined homes near Salt Lake City are the setting for a richly ambiguous character drama about monogamy and faith. ''Big Love," which premieres Sunday at 10, is layered enough to do what HBO's ''The Sopranos" and ''Six Feet Under" have done so well: make atypical heroes knowable and universal. It pulls us into its parallel moral universe, rather than keep us standing outside in judgment.

Which is not to say that Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is like Tony Soprano. ''Big Love" gives us a good, big-loving man who is hard to demonize and dismiss. He's not a horndog or a sadist; he's living out a religious principle (though the Mormon Church does not condone polygamy, some Mormons continue to practice it). He honors his wives, among whom he alternates every three days according to a schedule set by first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn). And his drive to provide for them is the American dream in action, as he ambitiously works to make his home-improvement store into the next Wal-Mart. Paxton was a good choice, bringing to the role a warm, disarming demeanor with a hint of inscrutability.

Actually, the demon of the piece is Roman Grant, played by Harry Dean Stanton wearing a string tie and looking awfully shady. Roman is the prophet-leader of a hard-core Mormon sect at Juniper Creek, not far from Bill, and he acts like a ruthless mob boss. When he's not running a real-estate scam on the elderly, he's extracting 15 percent of Bill's hard-earned money to cover an already-paid loan. Roman provides the show with a suspense plot, as he threatens Bill's safety, but he also serves as a reminder of the ugliest side of polygamy. Roman has 14 wives, 31 children, 187 grandchildren, and one wife-to-be, Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), a petulant 14-year-old who's being robbed of her youth.

The strain among Bill's wives is the emotional centerpiece of ''Big Love." No matter how sane and sisterly the three women try to be, they find competition creeping into their garden of big love like weeds. They don't have the obvious catfights of ''Desperate Housewives," although they have an occasional moment of nighttime soap opera. But self-sacrifice quietly grates on Barb, Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), particularly Nicki, who consoles herself by shopping her way into serious debt. Their needs don't always fall into convenient three-day cycles, and the group marriage is a den of triangulation more often than a harmonious support system. Two wives always seem to be ganging up on a third.

Nicki is the most troubled sister-wife, to use the Mormon term, and the most interesting. While Barb has dignity and distinction as the oldest, and Margene is indulged as the newbie, the insecure Nicki feels lost in the crowd. She's particularly resentful of Barb's authority, and she compensates by putting on airs. ''You chose some toughies," Bill's work buddy and fellow polygamist says, and Bill cannot deny it. As Nicki, Sevigny is, as always, memorable. Here she uses her still face to mask fury, and she lets her lovely, quiet eyes betray a killer instinct.

The domestic tension is only heightened by the wives' isolation. Bill and his family are in the closet, as they hide their polygamy from the neighbors. This secrecy means that when Margene chats with the gregarious lady across the street, she's putting her family and Bill's business at risk. The Henricksons have to stay insular in order to continue as they are.

As on ''The Sopranos," Bill and his families may be camouflaged in suburban iconography -- the swimming pools and the SUVs -- but they don't blend in. Within the Henrickson walls, life is almost a holdout of 1960s commune living, even if the drug of choice this time around is father's little helper, Viagra.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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