At the start of the fourth season of Big Love, Kenny Rogers is scheduled to open the new ''family-friendly'' casino that Bill Paxton's Bill Henrickson worked so hard on all last season with the Blackfoot Indian tribe. But the family we're most concerned about the Henrickson clan, including Bill's three wives: Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is anything but friendly at the moment. They may smile at each other, hold hands and pray in a Mormon storefront church, but back at home(s), things are tense, as good drama must be.
Margene is making an awkward go at selling her crafts on a home shopping network; Barb's trying to fit in both spiritually (after last season's excommunication) and professionally (the Blackfoot folks don't respect her as a businesswoman); and naughty, naughty Nicki why, someone's been depositing money in her name into an account for one ''Roman Grant.'' But Roman, Harry Dean Stanton's grim patriarch-prophet, is dead, isn't he?
I could easily fill up this space just doling out the subplots that are packed into the new season of Big Love and never get to the ''Is it good this season, or not?'' part. So as a way of not spilling spoilers and to give fans assurance, let me say: Big Love is very, very good this season. In the past, I've thought the way Bill juggles his wives without being exposed as a polygamist has strained credulity. And when his father, Frank (goaty Bruce Dern), and mother, Lois (flinty Grace Zabriskie), started trying to kill each other out on the dusty plains like a live-action Road Runner and Coyote, Big Love threatened to become cartoonish.
Well, Frank and Lois are still at it, but there's a new intensity to the squabbles that grounds them in a bracing realism. Indeed, the whole series feels as though the stakes have been raised for everyone. This includes the best simpering villain on television since The Simpsons' Mr. Burns Matt Ross' Alby, who's not just continuing his power grab of Roman's Juniper Creek kingdom but also cruising the recently appointed trustee of the Creek's assets (hunky new regular Ben Koldyke).
Big Love is all about secrets. Why they are often necessary, why their illicit nature can bring delicious pleasure and stinging pain, why they can't be maintained forever, how they corrode trust and, ultimately, life. Thank goodness the series is anchored by the mighty performance of Bill Paxton, now more than ever Big Love's moral compass, its sane surrogate for viewers, and, like us, under some stress himself. It's gonna be a big season. A–