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Who's Your Daddy, America?

Three is enough? Bill Paxton and his wives, from left, Ginnifer Goodwin, Chlo Sevigny and Jeanne Tripplehorn

HBO’s new Sunday-night lineup turns one of television’s cherished family mantras into a question: Father knows best?

For seven years now, viewers have been deep in the messy personal neuroses of Daddy Soprano, who returned to our consciousness last week in gloriously tough, sweetly mundane and — in quite the last-minute shocker — cosmically fucked fashion. (I guess the writers are taking the idea of a gut check literally.) But now there’s a new iffy pop on the pay-cable block, Bill Paxton’s Utah businessman Bill Henrickson, patriarch of a polygamous home in the long-awaited series Big Love. Is the bar for moral thorniness and outré TV situations being raised?

The irony is that the leap we all had to make in okaying a Mafia man and occasional murderer as a sympathetic household protagonist was made smoother by pop culture’s long-standing love affair with the made and the mobbed-up: Rico, Scarface, the Corleones and Henry Hill have been in our homes so many times, they’re family. But where’s the mass-entertainment precedent for accepting a guy with three wives? Clifton Webb in the 1959 movie The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker?

What helps us warm to Big Love’s 11-strong Henricksons is that apart from the sense of a genuine morality and devotion — at least nobody’s whacking anybody — the show takes pains to deal with notions of respectability, and the complex tug of war between inward openness with each other and outward fear of what others will think of their arrangement. As conceived by creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, Bill Henrickson was born into the kind of society-shunning fundamentalist compound most of us think of when we read about polygamists in the news — insular, corrupt and skeevy. But he sought to escape it all when he married college-educated teacher Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and started his own home-improvement business. (A two-by-four of a job metaphor, but it works.) Life with three kids and one wife suited Bill fine until one day it didn’t — more on that later — and soon the compound-raised Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) was added, followed by the irrepressibly young Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, from Walk the Line), and they had kids, too. By the time Big Love has started, Bill is nothing but responsibilities, capitalist ambition and familial closeness — three houses next to each other on the same suburban street, his second big-box store just opening, a close-kept bed-rotation schedule with the wives — and it becomes clear that their nitty-gritty home issues of just maintaining stability are ours, too, just multiplied.

But that’s also when the sly humor of Big Love rears its head, because in lieu of a network family drama or sitcom where the head-butting over money, chores, attention, sexual conduct and broken house rules is between put-upon parents and unruly children, this time it’s between all the adults. Who gets the upper hand in authority is a continually fluid, often funny and always dramatically interesting part of the domestic universe of Big Love. Bill may be the breadwinner of the harem, but keeping up with the demands of his wives — where Tony Soprano pops Prozac, this guy requires Viagra — hardly puts him in the driver’s seat. Plus, he’s still being hit up for payments to a polygamist-sect leader called the Prophet (Harry Dean Stanton), who initially helped bankroll Bill’s career.

As for the wives, Nicki — whose long skirts and prairie-style shirts are a continuing source of worry to the other wives since they might clue the neighbors into her upbringing — may derisively call first wife Barbara “boss lady,” but she’s also as undisciplined with money as a teenager with a credit card. The sexually rapacious Margene is caught between being powerless enough to get baby-sitting chores dumped on her by her sister wives and being called too mature to act like a squealing child when she gets excited. (She’s not that much older than Barbara and Bill’s teenage son.)

Barbara, meanwhile, is savvy enough to know how to run a tight ship, but continually conflicted over what exactly she agreed to with Bill years ago after a cancer scare forced her to get a hysterectomy. In a simultaneously chilling and sad scene from the pilot, Barbara finds herself staying overnight at Bill’s parents’ — a dusty, unkempt polygamist enclave that clearly disgusts her sensibilities. She finds herself talking to a haughty 15-year-old, who we learn is patriarch Roman’s newest wife. When asked if it was after her cancer took away her ability to have babies that Barbara “said Bill could marry Nicki,” Barbara coldly replies, unwilling to discuss shadings, “There’s a little more to it than that, sweetie.” Then, barely out of earshot, we hear the 15-year-old get the last word on the heretic in their midst: “I’ll never get cancer.”

It’s something of a feat that the makers of Big Love are willing to put the ugly side of this phenomenon up against the mainstream sheen of Bill’s setup, and — thanks in great part to the marvelous acting on display, from Paxton’s rugged haplessness to all three women’s unique variations on maternal stress and wifely sensuality — still offer up a family to root for, warts and all.

Networks sometimes refer to their stable of shows as being part of “the family” — as in “the CBS family” — and that naturally leads one to look for ways to categorize programming decisions in family terms. Showtime picking up Arrested Development from Fox: Would that be a foster-care situation or benevolent adoption? And why can’t ABC get a grip on its once-promising Commander in Chief, which is now handing in viewership report cards that would make no parent network happy, and is about to lose show-running stepdad Steven Bochco?

How will ABC newborn Sons & Daughters turn out? It’s got one famous older parent in executive producer Lorne Michaels, and a couple of young guardians in creators Fred Goss and Nick Holly, who are nudging ABC into unfamiliar territory with comedy that is semi-improvised à la Curb Your Enthusiasm. But there’s enough that’s familiar in the dysfunctional-clan scenario to keep the network cooing.

Goss stars as Cameron, a husband and father trying to not only manage his own blended family — including a bitter teenage son from his first marriage and a hot wife (Gillian Vigman), with whom he now has kids — but also deal with a sister (Alison Quinn) in a sexless marriage, and a comely younger stepsister (Amanda Walsh) who hates her baby’s loser daddy, nicknamed “Whitey” (Greg Pitts), but won’t give up dreaming of bad boys like Colin Farrell, whom she calls “classy.” On top of that, the siblings’ mother, Colleen (Dee Wallace), still has an obvious hold on everyone — emotionally and even financially — and she’s going through her own problems with her husband, Wendal (Max Gail), who’s ready to get out after 25 years.

Just as Big Love represents a threefold increase in family contretemps, Sons & Daughters ups the kin-eticism of three generations within meddling distance of each other, and the results are promising. Issues of secret-keeping, checkbook hardship and sexual compatibility have been addressed in the episodes that have run so far, and the looseness of the interchanges gives the humor an anti-writers’-room freshness without losing the harshness we’ve come to expect in this Everybody Loves Raymond/Arrested Development age of clashing relatives. Most impressive is the sense that despite all the crash-and-burn storylines and traded insults, the characters aren’t consumed with faux sitcom hatred, and there’s room for simple moments of tenderness that aren’t the accursed “hugs” we’ve been trained to hate from the rise of Seinfeld. In other words, I notice people smiling on this show. It could just be actors pleased with their ad-libbing ability, or it could be a performance choice. But whatever the case — and this is for you, Daddy ABC — who doesn’t like a grinning infant?

BIG LOVE | HBO | Sundays 10 p.m.

SONS & DAUGHTERS| ABC | Tuesdays 9 p.m.


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