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Utahns react to HBO's 'Big Love'

Published March 13, 2006 12:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is starting off as a love/hate affair, which means the relationship between "Big Love" and its Utah audience could be headed for trouble.

Those mixed emotions are coming from a panel of viewers with connections to polygamy, invited to watch the show with The Salt Lake Tribune. In one breath, they praise some aspects of the show while in the next they bemoan its shortcomings.

What the show gets right or wrong depends on whether you are a foe or proponent of polygamy.

The affluent, suburban polygamous family? Fantasy. Reality.

The hard-scrabble life and sinister prophet of Juniper Creek? Reality. Fantasy.

The relationship between Bill Henrickson, his three wives and their children? Fantasy. Reality.

The one thing everyone agrees on: The sex is all wrong.

"The main stereotype you get in polygamy is about sex, and the Viagra-popping man who is trying to keep up sexually just misses the point of what The Principle [or plural marriage] is about," said a Salt Lake Valley polygamist who has three wives and requested anonymity.

Then again, this is HBO, so the sex theme wasn't surprising, they agree.

But is it compelling? A few viewers said the first episode was boring; more found it intriguing.

"It was actually better than I expected it to be," said Ann Wright, of Centennial Park, a fundamentalist Mormon community at the Utah/Arizona border.

To be sure, trying to come up with a series that does justice to such a sensitive topic is a big order. These viewers give creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer credit for trying.

"There were some very real portrayals of the issues, just overdramatized," said the Salt Lake City man. "In a lot of ways, it did have a lot of positive images, such as the polygamist next-door, but it is still portraying it as [being] about sex."

Critics and supporters of polygamy said the show glosses over the spiritual foundation of plural marriage. What's left out is the coercive power religious polygamy exerts over victims, said Vicky Prunty, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy. The other view: Without it, there is no explanation for why the characters choose to live this lifestyle and the benefits they find in it.

"I wish there had been a little more spirituality first, and a little more humor second," said Anne Wilde, a former plural wife and co-founder of the advocacy group Principle Voices.

Many found "Big Love" misleading because of how it blends cultural aspects of different polygamous groups - something the viewing audience outside of Utah will likely miss altogether.

"Maybe we need a chance to have a disclaimer, 'This is not all polygamy,' " said Priscilla Hammon, also of Centennial Park.

But others appreciate the contrast made between the suburban family and the polygamists living in a rural compound, saying the portrayals reflect variations among Utah polygamists.

"I really appreciated the diversity," Wilde said. "They pointed out there is a community, they might have some problems, but yet there are a lot of polygamists that live inside society just as this family did and some of the neighbors didn't even know their lifestyle."

Prunty said regardless of the particular brand of polygamy the show depicts, the problems and abuses inherent in the lifestyle are the same.

"You're going to deal with the same issues, the same jealousies, the same whining, complaining wives and the husband who tries to stretch it so thin he becomes impotent," she said.

These viewers also had differing opinions of how Bill Henrickson matches up with real-life polygamists. For some, even showing him keeping check on his children by telephone was too much. For others, to not show him interacting directly with the kids rang false.

"The Henrickson family is pretty realistic, but it's the kind of family nobody sees in the public eye," said Mary Batchelor, also of Principle Voices.

The creators of "Big Love" say they've tried to draw a distinction between polygamous groups and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced the religious tenet in 1890. Both foes and proponents of polygamy believe the LDS Church's fears about the show will be realized, pointing out repeated uses of the Salt Lake Temple as a backdrop, depiction of female missionaries and references to Mormon culture.

"There is plenty in there to offend the LDS Church," said Andrea Moore-Emmett, author of God's Brothel, stories from women who left polygamous relationships. "They have ignored this and let it go on and if this is what they get, oh well."

Meantime, Utah's fundamentalist groups await America's reaction to this dramatization of their lifestyle.

"The culture is already on the defensive," said Joyce Steed of Centennial Park."It makes me a little tired to think, 'Oh man, what might we have to [endure]?' "

brooke@sltrib.com