PASADENA, Calif. – The creators of a new HBO drama about the domestic life of a Utah polygamous family say they spent 2 1/2 years researching their show, much of it in the state, and believe polygamists and anti-polygamists alike will find it as real as Hollywood can get it.
Creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer gathered with the cast of the upcoming “Big Love” at the Television Critics Association winter media tour Friday to talk about how the show might be received by both sides of the issue, as well as by the LDS Church.
The show premieres March 12 on the pay cable network and will air after HBO’s most-revered series, “The Sopranos,” every week.
“Big Love” follows polygamist Bill Henrickson and his three wives as they lead complicated and emotionally draining lives in side-by-side homes in Sandy.
Henrickson (Bill Paxton, “Aliens,” “Titanic”) is the owner of a chain of home improvement stores who hides his plural marriages from everyone but his best friend and general manager, who also is a polygamist.
The core of the series is how Henrickson maintains his marriages amid chaos and bouts with jealousy, competition and demands of each wife.
Each episode begins with a disclaimer stating that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not sanction the practice of plural marriage, something the creators say they are doing without prompting from the church.
“It had become somewhat important for us for dramatic purposes to establish the Mormon Church’s opposition to polygamy as part of the dramatic stakes for this family,” Olsen said. “It’s part of the shadow they [the family] are living under.”
However, the LDS Church in October issued a statement saying it had asked the producers to consider such a statement and received a receptive response.
In Utah, anti-polygamy crusaders fear the show will portray the lifestyle too lightly while polygamy defenders worry it won’t do justice to the complexities of the relationships involved.
“We don’t expect them to get it right,” said Marianne Watson, an advisory board member of Principle Voices, an advocacy group that educates the public about polygamy. “If [producer] Tom Hanks does a really good job, it may produce a little bit more charity. If he doesn’t and all it is is about sex, it will only increase the portrayal of the stereotypes that are already there.”
The creators say that getting it right has been a primary consideration in developing the show.
“We didn’t want to be glossy,” Olsen said. “We didn’t want to be glib. We didn’t want to be wrong. We wanted to get it right.”
As for research, the duo said they talked to two members of the Apostolic United Brethern in Bluffdale and also scoured scores of books and newspaper articles from The Salt Lake Tribune. Olsen said he deliberately avoided groups who have formed around the issue because he didn’t want to be influenced by “people with an agenda.”
“We wanted to slightly float above that,” he said. “What we needed to do was to get the authentic voices in these compounds, both good and bad.”
That said, Olsen believes anti-polygamists won’t be offended by the show. “We decry the same abuses that they decry but we do see a slightly larger canvas of polygamy than I sense that they see,” Olsen said.
Vicky Prunty of Tapestry Against Polygamy said she reviewed an early script and fears the show will “lead people into thinking there are greener pastures on the other side of monogamy. From what we’ve seen, it doesn’t deal with abuse issues.”
In the series, Barb (Jeanne Tipplehorn, “The Firm,”) has been married to Bill for 16 years. A former Mormon, she accepted his marriages to other women in a desperate move to stay with the man she loves.
Nicki (Chloe Sevigny, “The Brown Bunny”) is the middle wife, the daughter of a notorious rural polygamist in the fictional town of Juniper Creek and a voracious spender who has run up thousands in credit card debt.
The wily and conniving prophet of Juniper Creek (played by Harry Dean Stanton, “Alien,” “Pretty in Pink”) has a 13-year-old wife and attempts to extort money from Henrickson.
Finally, there is Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, TV’s “Ed”), Henrickson’s youngest wife and a new mother who is struggling to adapt to those roles as well as polygamy.
The one-hour drama is filled with comic moments as the family deals with day-to-day domestic matters – times three. As Bill’s polygamist friend says, “Men think having three wives is a walk in the park, and it isn’t.”
Sometimes, Bill gets confused, despite a detailed schedule, about whose night it is and there are often jealousies among the wives over who he has sex with the most and who gets more of his attention.
In one episode, Bill resorts to taking Viagra to stay sexually active – something that has already set off Utah’s polygamist communities.
Paxton said he took on the role because “it was such an interesting prism to examine the human condition through. It’s been a great experience and a great challenge to make this seem weirdly normal.”