The first three seasons of Big Love—HBO’s take on modern polygamy—brought us infidelity, teenage pregnancy, underage drinking, blackmail, extortion and more blackmail. A husband and wife take turns trying to kill each other, an adopted Chinese girl is kidnapped by a roving gang of murderous, androgynous, false-prophet worshiping heathens; a mother hires a hitman to pose as a gay cruiser and take out her own closeted son in a public restroom. But this is not what’s most upsetting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), an unwitting subject of the quietly controversial one-hour drama. If internet murmurings are true about what’s in store for the new season, which premieres on Sunday night, we can expect the controversy to get a little bit louder.
The LDS Church has long been bedeviled by its polygamist (and by some accounts, violent) origins. In 1890, the “Principle” of plural marriage was offered up as the sacrificial lamb of an exhausted struggle for Utah to be granted statehood by a federal government that placed the Mormon practice alongside slavery as one of the “twin barbarisms” that threatened to engulf civilization. Church officials never looked back. But the policy reversal, which came in the form of “revelation”—as politically-charged procedural changes within the Church are wont to do—was not embraced by every follower of the faith. Splinter factions that continued to uphold the Principle were quickly established and have remained in existence until today, in Utah and elsewhere. These factions—along with independently polygamous families—are rejected by the Church and are not considered to be Mormon in any sense. But however ostracized polygamists might be, it is not difficult for them to justify their lifestyle: Support for the practice is right there in the Mormon scriptures (Doctrines and Covenants 132:19-20), and Joseph Smith himself, the religion’s founding father, had six wives and 48 children. LDS and fundamentalists both participate in ceremonial “sealings” that bond families together for eternity: Among Mormons there is no such thing as “till death do us part.”
While polygamists believe that they are acting on a sacred “testimony” by entering into plural marriage, it is easy for an outsider to see the practice as deeply misogynist, sexually gluttonous, or simply bizarre. Both dissenters—those who have a stake in how Mormonism and polygamy are portrayed in the entertainment media—and the genuinely disinterested have accused HBO of using a bygone religious tradition as an excuse to showcase unseemly bedroom drama that might come with the territory of plural marriage. Though it is shadowed by the critical and popular success of The Sopranos—its stylistic progenitor—Big Love closely follows the formula of a string of premium cable hits that have earned HBO and Showtime (its earnest, imitative competitor) street cred among couch potatoes and eager cinematicos alike. The success of The Sopranos and Oz wrought The Wire, Dexter, Weeds, Hung, and even Curb Your Enthusiasm: Critical favorites that explore deviants and criminals from the inside out, and offer a deliciously indulgent elixir to the law and order favored by primetime network television.
Technically, Big Love‘s Hendrickson family are outlaws, and they are certainly societal outcasts; but they are cast from a peculiar society that itself exists in the margins of mainstream popular culture (although it’s gaining ground). The Sopranos were fighting against The Man; the Hendricksons are fighting against the Quorum of the Twelve. Both the heroes and the villains are something of an alien entity to the majority of Big Love‘s viewership, but certainly not to the show’s writers and producers, who know what they’re talking about. And that’s what LDS probably doesn’t want you to know.