TV Review: Big Love

It's been nearly a year and a half since last we laid eyes on the Henrickson gang who go about their polygamist lives on the HBO drama "Big Love." And it wasn't until watching the first three episodes of the third season that I realized how much I missed these people and this show, which evidence shows is moving beyond mere gimmickry to a place of genuine quality.

It's always been well-acted and crafted with surprising restraint. But as the dawn of this new campaign underscores, the production team looks to be taking things to another level beyond serialized contrivance. It's actually beginning to play like -- OK, let's just come right out and say it -- a rich family drama. Seriously.

It's not just about the strenuous juggling act waged by home-improvement store boss Bill (Bill Paxton) to keep his three wives and three mothers-in-law from driving him batty. It's as much a tale of the complex dynamics of their unwieldy situation and the outside forces that pose a threat not only to their way of life but to the patriarch's continued ability to keep this family of 12 humans and three houses fed and sheltered.

The exceptional cast headed by Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin shows few signs of rust from the long "Big Love" layoff, with Harry Dean Stanton adding intense and colorful support as the prophet named Roman Grant. The opening installments center on Bill's tricky push to expand his business holdings to include a Mormon-friendly casino, while Nicki (Sevigny) remains typically insecure and unfulfilled, eldest kids Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) and Ben (Douglas Smith) grow increasingly restless and first wife Barb (Tripplehorn) discovers a recurrence of her cancer.

Bill also is confronted with the possibility of adding a fourth wife to his multiplying family, setting the stage for greater disagreement and awkwardness with his established wifely trio.

Particularly in the first episode, penned by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, the humor flows far more naturally from the material than ever before. It's likewise significantly more character-based than story line-dependent. Against the odds, this series looks to be evolving into something unexpected: an ensemble hour with true provocative flair.

Airdate: 9-10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18 (HBO)
Production: HBO Entertainment in association with Playtone and Anima Sola Prods
Cast: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Harry Dean Stanton, Shawn Doyle, Mireille Enos, Joel McKinnon Miller, Matt Ross, Mary Kay Place, Amanda Seyfried, Douglas Smith, Melora Walters, Grace Zabriskie, Daveigh Chase, Bruce Dern
Executive producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer, David Knoller
Co-executive producer: Bernadette Caulfield
Consulting producer: Dan Attias
Producer: Steve Turner
Co-producers: Dustin Lance Black, Patricia Breen, Peter Friedlander
Writers: Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer
Director: Dan Attias
Director of photography: Anette Haellmigk
Production designer: Kitty Doris-Bates
Editor: Byron Smith
Music: Anton Sanko
Costume designer: Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko
Casting: Junie Lowry Johnson, Libby Goldstein