Ellen Gray | 'Big Love' demonstrates HBO's edgy lineup

"Big Love" (above) returns tonight. "Kyle XY" (left) was nominated for a children's TV award.

BIG LOVE. 9 p.m., HBO.

HBO, CLEARLY worried that Tony Soprano's going to whack more than a few of its subscribers on his way out, has been reminding them - through those none-too-subtle promos backed by Five for Fighting's "World" ("History starts now") - that the cable network's world doesn't begin and end with "The Sopranos."

And you know what? It's true.

I'm not about to shill for HBO, whose monthly fee stands between a lot of good people and some pretty good television. But I will say that for those who care about TV that can't attract a large, advertiser-friendly audience, HBO's been a port in the storm.

No, it didn't keep "Deadwood" on as long as some of us would have liked.

But I can't imagine David Milch's brilliant, extravagant Western getting as long a run anywhere else (and that includes Showtime, which tends to limit its lack of limits to prettier people than many of the denizens of "Deadwood").

I certainly can't imagine Milch slipping his surreal surfing drama "John From Cincinnati," which premiered last night after "The Sopranos" finale, past the suits at many other networks.

(Well, OK, maybe FX. But even FX still has advertisers to contend with.)

If a levitating surfer's a tricky sell, imagine the options for "The Wire," a show about the drug trade in Baltimore that's one of the very best television shows ever. There aren't any.

And while a lot of networks might at this point happily sign on with the good-time boys of "Entourage," how many would show the love for the polygamists of "Big Love" that HBO has, especially in the face of not-so-big ratings?

But as off-putting as the idea sounded at first - Bill Paxton plays a Utah businessman with three wives - it's "Big Love," an absorbing drama about a family with at least as many secrets as Tony and Carmela Soprano, that I still expected to inherit the mantle of "The Sopranos" on Sundays.

Instead, as it returns tonight, it's on Mondays, a tougher slot for HBO, which has been having a hard enough time making its Sunday shows events in these days of DVRs and On Demand.

(Tonight's premiere, will, however, repeat at 8 p.m. next Sunday.)

Paxton, an actor with a face for the Rotary Club, has done some of his best work ever as "Big Love's" Bill Henrickson, a suburbanite who rejected his polygamy cult roots and embraced mainstream Mormonism, only to find himself drawn back to "the principle" when his wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), became ill with cancer.

Before long, Bill and Barb had been joined by Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), the spendthrift daughter of cult leader Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), whose journey from family baby sitter to wife still occasionally touches a nerve with her "sister wives."

Bill's not the first guy to marry the sitter (or the nanny), but how many have put the move to a family vote?

If "Big Love" seems perverse - as it sometimes does, but seldom in the ways you'd expect - it still manages to say a lot about marriage in the 21st century.

And while I wouldn't want Barb or Nicki or Margene's marriage, I can't say I ever wanted Carmela Soprano's, either.


'Kyle' back with answers

There was no doubt a bit of head-scratching in some quarters last week when the Television Critics Association nominated ABC Family's "Kyle XY" and "Lincoln Heights" for awards in the category of children's programming.

There was no doubt a bit of head-scratching in some quarters last week when the Television Critics Association nominated ABC Family's "Kyle XY" and "Lincoln Heights" for awards in the category of children's programming.

I can't object, having forgotten to return my nomination form, but those two shows certainly jump out from a list that included Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" and "SpongeBob Squarepants," as well as the Disney Channel's "Johnny and the Sprites."

I don't think there's much on ABC Family these days that "Dora's" tender-age target demo should be watching, and "Kyle XY," which returns at 8 tonight for its second season, deals with some pretty dark stuff, up to and including murder.

It was, however, a major favorite of my teenage son (who still watches "SpongeBob" once in a while). He was totally devoted to Kyle (Matt Dallas), the brainiac kid who apparently fell to earth without a belly button.

As we face a fall season full of characters with superpowers, the networks could learn a bit from ABC Family's approach to "Kyle." There's still plenty of mystery surrounding the boy who last season came to live with psychologist Nicole Trager (Marguerite MacIntyre) and her family, yet the show's youthful viewers aren't being played for suckers.

Last season's finale was a bit of a cliffhanger, but tonight's episode is chock-full of the kind of answers "Lost" fans would've had to wait far longer to hear. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.