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HBO's polygamy drama 'Big Love' airs final episode Sunday

It may be one of the last conventions left in an increasingly unconventional culture.

But even as marriage rates decline out in the real world, TV seems fascinated with an odd offshoot: Mormon splinter groups' practice of polygamy.

On HBO, Sunday marks the final episode of its polygamy-centered drama, Big Love, wrapping up a universe of convoluted plots and conflicts after five years. Besides handing meaty roles to Titanic alum Bill Paxton, film legend Harry Dean Stanton and talented eccentric Chloe Sevigny, we have this series to thank for introducing the world to star-in-the-making Amanda Seyfried and "the Principle" — the term patriarch Bill Henrickson uses for their, um, unique marriage setup.

And as the HBO series winds down, TLC revs up the second season of its unscripted look at a real-life polygamous family, Sister Wives, airing in the same 9 p.m. time slot as Big Love.

Each show tackles its subject in subversive ways. Big Love, which its creators always posed as a nonjudgmental take on polygamy, has instead become a treatise on the hypocrisy of its characters, who fall short of their religious and moral ideals with drama-filled regularity.

Most recently, Paxton's Henrickson, elected to the Utah State Senate as an open polygamist, discovered his third wife lied about her age. She was 16 when they wed, and now his political enemies are using statutory rape charges to end his public stand for multiple marriage.

Stack that storyline on top of Henrickson's conflicts with his murderous, closeted gay brother-in-law who runs a cultish compound like a new school Warren Jeffs, and you can see why real-life polygamists haven't exactly embraced the series.

If Big Love shows its characters falling short, Sister Wives is a too-brazen attempt to slap a Brady Bunch-style sheen on a practice long illegal in the United States.

On Sunday, patriarch Kody Brown, his four wives and 16 children prepared for the kids' entry into public school while simultaneously readying for an appearance on the Today show in New York.

Through a series of candy-coated scenes, producers work hard to show the Browns are Just Like Us, with talk of domestic duties and school matters skirting the elephant in the room. (If Kody really believes "love should be multiplied, not divided," as he says in the show's opening credits, why is he the only guy in this arrangement?)

Such valentines to polygamy — kids joke about being "poligs" — gloss over the issues Big Love tackles head on. How does a modern woman justify living in a household where four women are aligned with a single man? How are friendships and work lives affected by their fame and resulting police investigation? (Kody Brown is legally married to only one of the four, avoiding obvious bigamy charges.)

Sister Wives this season also faces a common problem with notable unreality shows — the second season focus on the stars' growing fame. So we see a family which has lived before TV cameras for months get tongue-tied visiting the Today show, fretting over harsh opinions on the Internet.

It's odd to find a fictional show cutting closer to the bone than a series about real people. But while Sister Wives works hard to convince us of its stars' normalcy, Big Love probes the difficult emotional truths of characters whose belief in their own morality is constantly challenged.

Guess which show I'll be curled up with come Sunday?

Replacing Katie

If a story in the Hollywood Reporter is on target, anchor Katie Couric may leave her gig leading the CBS Evening News for a syndicated daytime talk show. So who should take Couric's place? My short list:

Scott Pelley: The drawback is that 60 Minutes would lose its best correspondent. But the newscast would gain even more journalism firepower. And while CNN's CBS contributor Anderson Cooper also seems good, he's got a syndicated TV show of his own debuting this fall.

David Gregory: NBC's Meet the Press host seems overshadowed by former anchor Tom Brokaw and current anchor Brian Williams on most news stories. And it likely will be a long time before Williams leaves the big chair.

Gwen Ifill: I say this every time a big anchor job comes up, because the host of PBS' News­Hour is so good. CBS could chart an ambitious new course with one smart hire.

Meredith vieira: Okay, the first time CBS tried this maneuver, it was a little rocky. But Today show co-host Vieira has better hard news credentials and a history with the network, including a stint on 60 Minutes in the late 1980s and on the CBS Morning News.

The Social Whirl

Picks, pans and punditry from the news feeds

For years, fans have raved about CBS' well-crafted online portal for the NCAA basketball tournament. But this week, CBS and new partner Turner Sports double down on that success with NCAA March Madness on Demand; live streaming video of every game in the 68-team tournament with free access by iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. There's a My Channels feature, helping fans find their fave games across CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV streams; live statistics during the games; and methods for linking with like-minded fans through Facebook and NCAA.com. Way to turn watching a basketball game on an iPad into a social media event.

The Feed

HBO's polygamy drama 'Big Love' airs final episode Sunday 03/13/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 13, 2011 8:37pm]

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