Big Love: The Gospel According to HBO 

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For the first two and a half seasons of Big Love, HBO and LDS pretty much stayed out of each other's way. When the show premiered in 2006, LDS headquarters released a statement expressing concern that the setting a show about polygamists in Salt Lake City "is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the program's subject matter and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes." In the same statement, LDS acknowledged that HBO promised to make it clear that Latter-Day Saints do not practice polygamy. In keeping with this assurance, Big Love makes a clear distinction between active, tithed members of LDS and practitioners of the Principle—whether they are the compound-dwelling polygamists of Juniper Creek or plural families like the Hendricksons, practicing in secret.

Barb Hendrickson, Bill's first wife, struggles desperately to reconcile her "testimony" with her former life as a shining star of LDS; her mother and sister bear a heartbreaking and wrathful burden, respectively, of having their celestial sealing to Barb broken by her decision to enter into plural marriage. The word "Mormon" is uttered almost as infrequently as the word "mafia" was spoken on The Sopranos, and images of the Salt Lake City Temple all but disappeared after the first few episodes, where it loomed in the background of some key establishing shots.

But accurate reflections of the Mormon faith are recognizable in every episode. The opening sequence is a visual homage to the uniquely Mormon conception of the afterlife that is a core belief of traditional LDS and fundamentalists alike: The Celestial Kingdom is a physical location where sealed family members will find each other and remain together for eternity once earthly life has ended. Bill Hendrickson and his three wives ice skate together, hand in hand, to the musical accompaniment of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," exchanging loving glances. This is life on earth. The presumably thin ice cracks beneath them, breaking their grasp momentarily—death. The sequence ends with the four of them wading through a sea of white gauze, searching and quickly finding one another behind the veil. Their faith has been affirmed in the afterlife.

Some of the scenarios confronting the relatively upright Hendrickson family might be a touch over-the-top. But more often than not, they can effectively be traced back to a scriptural or historical precedent—although the writers often boldly exercise creative license. The season three episode titled "Outer Darkness," which aired on March 15, 2009, is one such case, and prompted LDS officials to speak up again after a nearly three-year silence. In it, Barb, on the brink of excommunication, begs her mother and sister to lend her a "temple recommend" (the LDS equivalent of a membership card) so that she might "receive her endowments" in a sacred, Fellini-eqsue temple ceremony. I don't presume to understand precisely what an actual endowment ceremony entails or represents, but I'm confident that such a blessing would not be available to inactive members of the church, and certainly not to suspected polygamists. As Barb's mother reminds her, as she is begging for help to get inside the temple, "It was just a few years ago that we stopped promising to disembowel and slit the throats of people who were monkeying around (with church procedures)."

One way or another—it's never made explicit how—Barb is granted entry, and the endowment ceremony is portrayed with supposed accuracy, save some minor factual errors. But it is the realism of the portrayal that prompted a vocal response from the Mormon community, which takes very seriously a commitment to keep sacred practices and rituals secret from the outside world. LDS headquarters released a statement titled "The Publicity Dilemma" that chastised HBO for its portrayal of the ceremony but maintained that the perpetually expanding church was unthreatened by "extreme misrepresentations in the media that appeal only to a narrow audience."


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