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Doug Hyun, AP Photo/ HBO
Bill Paxton stars as Utah polygamist Bill Henrickson. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin and Chloe Sevigny star as his wives in the new HBO series "Big Love."

Bill Henrickson is the latest in a long line of TV husbands who are much put-upon by their wives.

It's just that Bill is put-upon by wives. He's got three of them.

That's what sets the central character in "Big Love" apart from Ricky Ricardo, Ray Barone and all those TV husbands in between. But perhaps the most striking thing about the new HBO series about a family of Utah polygamists is that, overall, Bill (Bill Paxton) is just a regular guy.

He works hard building a business. He loves his seven kids. He tries to spend as much time with them and his wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) as he can. But that's not easy, even though they live in three side-by-side houses in suburban Sandy. (The show was filmed mainly in California, with some location shots done here.)

"He's got his hands full," Paxton recently told TV critics. "It's kind of the old proverb — beware of what you wish for, you just might get it."

The Henrickson family is hiding in plain sight from its Mormon neighbors. And the series goes out of its way to make it clear that they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and not just with a disclaimer at the end of each episode. There are, for example, repeated references to trying to keep the local LDS bishop from learning about their lifestyle.

"It had become somewhat important for us for dramatic purposes to establish the Mormon Church's opposition to polygamy simply as part of the dramatic stakes for this family," said creator/executive producer/writer Mark Olsen. "It's part of what they are hiding from — it's part of the shadow they are living under."

"Big Love" also goes out of its way not to make the polygamist lifestyle look glamorous. It isn't easy for Bill to keep everybody happy. "Really, in much of the way that James Gandolfini is in 'The Sopranos,' I'm a guy, fortysomething, who's struggling with his business and with his family life," Paxton said. "I think, personally, it would be much too hectic a life to live. . . . I'm married with two children and just balancing that with a career in this business is a pretty full-time job."

This being HBO, Episode 2 revolves around Bill's efforts to satisfy his wives sexually. It's titled "Viagra," and it's almost soft-core porn — a rather transparent effort to draw viewers into a show that is toned down in the next three episodes. (Those most likely to be highly offended by the adult content of "Big Love" are probably those least likely to subscribe to HBO, for obvious reasons.)

A lot of the problems dealt with in the show are completely relatable to your average suburban family: a wife who spends too much money, a wife who isn't happy just staying at home with the kids, trouble with the in-laws, teenagers trying to figure out who they are.

Even what is far out of the ordinary — scheduling the husband's time with each wife or the jealousies among the women — seem almost routine.

After a bit of meandering and unfocused storytelling in the first couple of hours, the narrative picks up. The mix of weirdness and normality is oddly effective as the characters are developed. (HBO will air 12 episodes in the first season; a second season depends on the success of the first.)

While Utahns may not be shocked by the thought of suburban polygamists, others will find it all but unbelievable. Other TV critics questioned the reality of the situation and asked why the fictional polygamists live in suburbia.

"For starters, because thousands do," Olsen said. "I mean that's just the reality of it. The second largest polygamist community in Utah is in a suburban ring of Salt Lake City, one of the last suburbs next to Sandy called Bluffdale, and they are fairly integrated, to tell you the truth.

"It also felt like something we wanted to dramatize on the larger level, which is that tension between not wanting to be who your parents were, what you came from, and yet not being quite prepared to own who you are. They don't want to live in the boonies. They want to be accepted. They want to be integrated into the community, but they can't be. So it's that tension, I think that makes their lives interesting to us."

(As the critic from Utah, I was asked numerous times, "This doesn't really happen, does it?" To which my response was, "Um, yes.")

Perhaps the least believable thing about the Henricksons is that they are sort of independent polygamists. They don't belong to a cult and, while we see them praying and hear them talking about their faith, it's not so much seen in action.

"Big Love" doesn't shy away from polygamy's sinister side. Bill, a "lost boy" who was tossed out of a cult as a young teen, is beholden to his second wife's father (Harry Dean Stanton), a decidedly evil man whose favorite wife is an underage teen. And Bill's livelihood, life and family are endangered.

"We do feel very much a responsibility not to give short shrift to the abuses of polygamy," Olsen said.

There's more than enough tension to go around, what with the problems at home, the need to hide their lifestyle and the conflict with the cult leader. All this going on with people who, for the most part, seem like just the people next door.

"It's been a great challenge to kind of make this seem weirdly normal. But as you watch this show, you realize these people are just like all of us, going through the same hopes and dreams," Paxton said. "As far as Bill Henrickson's personal spiritual quest, I'm not playing this guy with any judgment or any sarcasm. He's earnest with his family and to his beliefs. It's such an interesting prism to kind of examine the human condition through. It was provocative, original, and so I said, 'Gosh, where do I sign up?' "

If you watch . . .

What: "Big Love"

Channel: HBO

When: Sundays, 11 p.m. (repeats at various times on HBO and HBO2)

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com