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Why We Love Big Love

Cable television loves nothing more than pushing the envelope , but HBO went a few extra steps when it created Big Love in 2006.

Just who wants to watch the travails of a polygamist and his three doting wives?

But Big Love proved difficult to push aside based on moral repulsion alone, and the show's third season debut, at 9 p.m. EST Sunday, offers more of the same dramatic rewards.

Sex. Religion. Intolerance. Acceptance. It's all here, and the new episodes blend those ingredients with considerable finesse.

It's still dicey enough material to push some viewers permanently away, but those who embraced Tony Soprano's whack-a-gangster exploits should find enough moral wiggle room to relish the drama here.

The season starts with Bill (Bill Paxton, the show's rock) zeroing in on a fourth wife, a waitress named Ana (Branka Katic) who isn't sure she's ready to be part of an "extended family."

Neither are the existing wives, although a group date featuring Ana and the blushing brides supplies early comic relief.

Big Love's villain, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton ), is rotting in jail on charges he had sex with minors. It's a story ripped from semi-recent headlines , but the images of the conservatively dressed women who Roman took advantage of is eerily up to date.

Stanton, his face full of stubble and double crossing thoughts, oozes evil even from behind bars. It's a safe bet he won't remain incarcerated by the time the season wraps.

Besides, how can you keep such a great character down for long?

And Big Love is full of 'em, from the despicable Frank (Bruce Dern) to Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), Bill's most stubborn wife -- and the only one to wear traditional Mormon garb.