About a year ago, HBO started airing commercials for its next big family drama, “Big Love.” The antithesis to the Sopranos version of family love, “Big Love” focuses on the inner workings of a modern-day polygamist family.
“Think having three wives is a dream come true?” taunts the show’s tongue-in-cheek teaser. “Meet Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), a modern-day Utah polygamist who lives in suburban Salt Lake City with his three wives, seven children, and a mounting avalanche of debt and demands.”
HBO’s creative advertising team did a bang-up job of illustrating the daily pressures of a modern polygamist by launching a series of commercials in which viewers are given a quick lesson in the “fundamentals” of juggling.
Husband, father, businessman, and upright everyman Bill struggles to balance the financial and emotional needs of wives Barb, Nicki and Margene (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chlo‰ Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin), who live in separate, adjacent houses and take turns sharing their husband each night.
Such a task, argues the HBO series, is less like a sexual fantasy and more like a nightmarish responsibility. Along with sharing the beds of three beautiful women comes the considerable responsibility of being the sole provider for three families, the father of seven children, and the owner of a chain of home improvement stores.
It is this complicated mix of home and family, sex and money that captivates audiences and draws them into the Henricksons’ lives.
And then there’s that whole polygamy thing, too.
The show, which currently re-airs Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. on HBO 2, also acts as a dramatized version of recent national events. In it, Bill must overcome the manipulative and treacherous dealings of the prophet Roman Grant (the soft-spoken, steely leader of Cedar Creek, a fundamentalist compound in rural Utah, whose number of corrupt business dealings is equal only to the number of wives he has).
The character of Roman, as played to perfection by acting veteran Harry Dean Stanton, echoes real-life leader and self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Warren Jeffs.
According to articles printed by The New York Times, Jeffs faces charges of arranging marriages between underage girls and older men, and other charges that he was an accessory to rape. Jeffs was recently arrested during a routine traffic stop in Las Vegas, NV.
So enters “Big Love” onto the mainstream stage; the fantastical vision of two up-and-coming writer/producers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, that has already received heated scorn from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, as well as some modest praise from pro-polygamist organizations such as “Principle Voices.”
The Mormon Church, which outlawed polygamy in 1890, complains that the show casts an unfavorable light on its religion and perpetuates stereotypical links between Mormonism and the practice of polygamy.
And while there may be certain aspects about “Big Love” that mirror the Mormon Church, the show actually says more about today’s society and HBO’s programming than Joseph Smith and his followers. Coming from a network that is known – by both the public and the industry – for producing edgy, taboo material, “Big Love” seems almost like the next logical piece to the puzzle (which includes media and critical darlings such as “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “OZ”).
“You think you’ve seen it all, and then HBO comes up with a show about modern-day Polygamists,” said “Big Love” star Tripplehorn in a recent interview promoting the show.
The stars aren’t the only ones that have noticed HBO’s infatuation with “edgy” material. In a recent New York Times article entitled “‘Big Love:’ Real Polygamists Take a Look at HBO Polygamists and Find Sex,” a group of former and current polygamists gathered to critique the show’s pilot, only to find a whole bunch of sex.
“The women said “Big Love” had too much skin and not enough religion or humor for their taste, (but) they agreed that it portrayed the Henricksons like any other American family, especially in an era of mixed marriages of all sorts, gay partnerships, single parents and serial monogamy.”
While the show does take a leap into the unknown by portraying a polygamist family, it fails to emphasize certain key elements over others. For example, one woman interviewed in the article said that “Big Love” failed to explain how religion plays such a huge part in a woman deciding to share her husband with two other women. The show didn’t, however, forget to show lots and lots of steamy -albeit unnecessary – sex scenes between Bill and his three equally gorgeous wives (which raises the time-old question of whether or not HBO shows sex just because it can, as opposed to its basic cable counterparts).
And for all the risks HBO appears to be taking with “Big Love” it seems as if all the taboo things that do happen don’t directly involve the Henrickson clan: Bill doesn’t seduce any child brides, domestic violence is non-existent, and even the wives’ bickering is somewhat tame. It’s as if the Henricksons sit stoically in the eye of the storm watching all the woes and ills of polygamy swirl tumultuously around their happy home.
Since its debut, the show has only grazed the emotional and religious surface when it comes to why first wife Barb allowed her husband to marry a second, and then a third wife. However, the reasons seem to be more financial than religious: Bill may or may not have agreed to marry the Prophet’s daughter Nicki in exchange for a loan in order to pay for cancer-stricken Barb’s chemo therapy.
Still, the mix of shady business transactions and Viagra-induced sex scenes speak volumes about what HBO thinks about its audience: Meet the Henricksons – an attractive, white, upper-middle class family trying to come to terms with its beleaguered past while combating financial and emotional extortion from the ultra-conservative Religious Right. Throw in some teen angst and a party scene straight out of Fox’s “The OC” and HBO has itself a demographic-transcending hit.
The trials and tribulations of each of the Henricksons’ many generations connect to any and all possible demographics. For example, men ages 18-49 will tune in to watch Bill battle blackmail and impotence; women ages 18-49 will tune in to watch Barb, Nicki, or Margene manage their hectic lives while learning to love each other; tweens and teens will tune in to sympathize with the pubescent Henrickson children; and the older demographic will tune in to watch Bill’s wily parents Frank and Lois duke it out on the compound.
Then there’s the show’s general sense of ambiguity toward religion, which is perhaps its greatest strength, and, yet, its greatest weakness. The fact that “Big Love’s” characters have yet to establish a firm religious stance is appealing for both the audience and the executives at HBO. As a result, viewers don’t feel alienated by the characters’ religious affiliation, and executives don’t have to fully answer to the Mormon Church for linking the Church with Polygamy.
But it is this lack of religious conviction that could turn out to be “Big Love’s” Achilles tendon. While most of the show’s characters are superbly acted, the script has yet to develop any deep, thought-provoking reflections regarding faith and its connection to family (polygamist or not). This lack of religious and/or spiritual conviction can be seen especially in the character of Bill, whose husbandly speeches often fall flat.
Still, one could hope that the show’s creators are simply giving their characters, and messages, a starting point to grow from. Perhaps the WASP-ish audiences emulated by the Mormon-ish Henricksons need time to acclimate to the possibility of finding God is a show about polygamy.