In his 30 years of marriage, Clayton Christensen has heard all kinds of wisecracks from associates about the possibility — totally untrue — that he has more than one wife.
”Sometimes it’s in jest,” says the Belmont resident and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. ”Quite often, it’s not.”
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Now HBO could make it worse.
Tomorrow night, the cable channel is premiering the drama series ”Big Love,” a show that could deliver, in Christensen’s opinion, ”a blow in our attempts to help people understand who we really are.”
The program stars Bill Paxton as a Mormon who leaves the church and becomes a polygamist. He needs Viagra to keep up with his three demanding wives in Salt Lake City.
The series, which will bring new meaning to the term ”desperate housewives,” is premiering amid plenty of fanfare. It’s slotted to air after HBO’s signature show, ”The Sopranos,” which returns for its sixth season tomorrow.
Christensen, a Salt Lake City native whose great-grandfather practiced polygamy, is one of a number of church members worried that the series will reinforce old stereotypes.
”This is not the kind of life that members of our church experience or condone,” says Christensen, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. ”I hope no one is inspired to go down this route. HBO has created a lot of programming in recent years that showcases people doing things that Jesus Christ has asked us not to do. It doesn’t strengthen our society, and I just hate to see them doing it again.”
Laurel Ulrich, a Harvard University history professor and church member who lives and worships in Cambridge, is more annoyed than worried by the series.
”This is such an enticing topic: a different twist on a torrid affair,” she says sarcastically. The legacy of polygamy is inescapable, and if you live as a Mormon long enough, she concludes, you will see the issue come and go.
Franz Busse, a bishop in the church’s Boston II Ward (one of the meetinghouses where members worship), is hopeful that HBO viewers will at least go to www.mormon.org before drawing any conclusions. ”A lot of people don’t know much about our church. . . . Publicity can be good.”
And yet here, some are questioning whether a television show that confuses viewers about the nature of a religion could affect a presidential campaign. They suggest that if the program catches on, Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could be hurt.
”This can’t help Romney,” says Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College and author of ”The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Practice Our Faith.” ”The Mormons have been considered one of the most unpopular religious groups in America. Polygamy was the major factor. Even more damning is the sense that in Utah it’s still practiced and people turn their back on it. It strikes me as a perfectly legitimate subject for television.”
The governor wouldn’t comment on the series, referring all questions to the church’s national headquarters. His spokeswoman, Julie Teer, said he has little time to watch TV, but when he does his favorite shows are ”Boston Legal,” ”24,” and ”My Name Is Earl.”
Although early members of the Mormon Church, including founder Joseph Smith, engaged in polygamy, the church says that today any member found to be involved in the practice is excommunicated.
”We don’t apologize for our polygamous past, but that was over 100 years ago. We’ve moved on,” says Michael Otterson, a church spokesman. ”This is a [television] program that has a danger of glamorizing polygamy. When you make it a topic of entertainment, you detract from the seriousness of the issue,” he says, referring to ongoing reports of child and wife abuse emanating from polygamous communities today.
Producers Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, who created ”Big Love,” said the last thing they want to do is to demonize Mormonism — or influence a presidential campaign.
”It’s a TV show,” says Olsen in an exasperated voice. ”I don’t think the Mormons will like the show because from their perspective it’s smutty and lewd. But I do think they will agree that we are being responsible. This is not a hit job on the Mormon Church but a careful dramatization of Mormon characters.”
Those characters include the protagonist Bill Henrickson (Paxton), who grew up in a polygamous community before he was kicked out by his father. Henrickson later marries his first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a Mormon, joining her in the church for 12 years. Then he has a revelation and convinces Barb to follow him out of the church and into the world of polygamy.
Wives Nicki (Chloe” Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) come later, along with seven children. The clan lives undercover in three adjacent houses on a quiet suburban street. The homes have no fences in the back, and the family dines together each day, with Henrickson sleeping in a different bed on a rotating schedule.
To be sure, the Mormons won’t be the only viewers upset by the program’s story line.
”Why is it that whenever Hollywood deals with religion, it’s treated as goofy, weird, sex-driven, and money-driven?” asks Michael Horton, a professor of theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondito, Ca. ”You wonder, do the people who write these screenplays actually have friendships with religious people who aren’t strange?”
Olsen and Scheffer are prepared for a backlash. ”The reaction may sometimes be ‘Yuck, there goes liberal Hollywood with another gratuitous freak show,’ ” acknowledges Olsen.
”But this is a show about marriage and family,” Scheffer interjects. ”We hope people will keep an open mind.”
How open-minded should our governor be? Ralph Whitehead Jr., who teaches press and politics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, predicts minimal damage.
”I’m old enough to remember when George Romney ran for president, and what the country learned about the Mormon Church then was that it had a history of racial discrimination,” he says. This time, he adds, ”I don’t see people making a connection between Romney and some generic cult.”
But all bets are off, he adds, if one of the wives decides to volunteer for the campaign of a Mormon running for president.