Raise the Red-State Lantern

HBO’s new polygamy drama, Big Love, opens in a sunlit suburban bedroom, with a man and his wife quietly having sex. Then the husband dresses and leaves, dropping a $100 bill on the nightstand.

That captures the tone of Big Love—disturbing, but not quite disturbing in the signature HBO way. No one ever swears in the hour-long scripted show. No one is brutally murdered. No one has a howling orgasm at 9 a.m. that wakes all the neighbors.

Instead, Bill Henrickson and his three wives live out the daily joys and frustrations of exurban domestic life, in three separate houses. The characters bicker, with equal gravity, about who will take the kids to school, who will pick up groceries, and who will sleep with Bill that night.

The result is that, when it premieres on March 12—in the showcase slot after The SopranosBig Love will become the creepiest show on television: more discomfiting than anything HBO has offered up before, more stomach-churning in its way than Fear Factor.

“In its own strange way, it’s a celebration of family,” said co-creator Mark Olsen, on the phone from the show’s Los Angeles studios.

Bill’s three wives are familiar female archetypes: There is Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the first wife, the responsible and controlling one; Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), the second, a compulsive shopper whom Bill married after Barb got cancer and became infertile; and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the third, who started off as the baby-sitter and now has two tots of her own.

Unlike typical HBO fare, Big Love is profanity-free—a suggestion made by co–executive producer Tom Hanks. Instead, the characters say “fudge” and “H,” which would make Big Love suitable for network television. But there are just enough errant cheeks and nipples—known as “HBO-checks” in the NYTV household—scattered throughout each hour to remind viewers that they’re watching premium cable.

For a viewership inured to most forms of televised sex, violence and profanity, the network has found a new and unexpected way of making its audience squirm: happy misogyny. “The greatest freedom we have is obedience,” says Bill in one later episode, to nods all around.

Mr. Olsen and Will Scheffer, a gay couple who live in Pasadena, came up with the idea for Big Love while driving back to Manhattan from a visit with Mr. Olsen’s family in Nebraska. It was 2000, and they were kicking around ideas to pitch to HBO during the long car trip.

Somewhere around West Virginia, Mr. Olsen hit on polygamy. Mr. Scheffer found the whole idea “yucky,” he recounted, and—horrified by the prospect of a show about abusive family relations—didn’t speak to Mr. Olsen for the rest of the drive.

But Mr. Olsen set out to research the topic anyway. Eventually, as he kept telling Mr. Scheffer about it, he got his partner to go along. Two years later, after months spent digging through the archives of The Salt Lake Tribune and many furtive trips through polygamist enclaves, Messrs. Olsen and Scheffer sold their idea to HBO executives.

“It was almost a polemical pitch,” Mr. Olsen recalled. “We gave them a laundry list of points about what this show wasn’t about. We wanted to indicate we’re not interested in doing a hit job on the Mormon Church.”

That’s all well and good—unless you’re the Mormon Church, officials of which have denounced the show sight unseen. “We’re not going to like this program…” a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told the Denver Post. “We teach our members to have higher moral standards, and this is a program about sex.”

The church officially banned polygamy in 1890, although between 20,000 and 40,000 people still practice it. As polygamous hotspots have grown in the last two decades—most notably the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints in Colorado City, Ariz., led by the outlaw “prophet” Warren Steed Jeffs—Mormon leaders have struggled to distance the church from the most radical offshoots.

HBO began meeting with the church months ago in hopes of preventing a full-scale boycott, despite all the historical evidence suggesting that few things boost ratings quite like the wrath of Christians. (Not even the wrath of Martha Stewart compares.) The network eventually agreed to air a disclaimer at the end of the pilot episode, differentiating everyday monogamous Mormons from their child-abusing, incest-condoning cousins. The disclaimer is also splashed in italics at the top of all the press materials, lest a reporter forget there is controversy here.

The writers—Mr. Scheffer, Mr. Olsen and a staff of seven—have struggled to make the show as nonjudgmental as possible, Mr. Olsen said. The writers have a good time with plurals, with Bill constantly fretting about his “homes,” but Mr. Olsen said they remind themselves that “these people care for each other. It’s not like everything has to have a happy ending, but it has to be put through the lens of ‘These people don’t hate each other. They are trying to be a family.’”

“That creates the need to write in a tone that isn’t sentimental, but isn’t dysfunctional either,” Mr. Scheffer added.

In focus groups, the show tested best among African-Americans—Mr. Scheffer guessed that was because Big Love is a show about people living on the margins of white-bread society. College students also have expressed particular interest, leading to an outpouring of student-paper editorials staunchly opposing polygamy.

The conservative blogosphere, meanwhile, has already sniffed out a plot to promote the homosexual agenda—for which, they suggest, fundamentalist Mormonism is a natural dramatic vehicle. In one scene, Nicki’s father (Harry Dean Stanton), a Jeffs-like leader of a polygamous compound called Juniper Creek, explains to a reporter that the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing bans on sodomy should carry over to polygamists as well. The next day’s headline: “We’re just like homosexuals.”

Creepy as the show is, it’s possible to imagine Big Love becoming a pop-culture phenomenon in much the same way as other shows with multiple female leads. Maybe the same women who identify with Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City or Gabrielle Solis on Desperate Housewives will find a sister in Nicki Henrickson, the incurable shopaholic and man-eater, who is $60,000 in debt and rarely without a Coach bag on her arm. Maybe polygyny is the new 40.

And maybe not. But every time the show seems to veer off into the unimaginable, the writers provide a little reminder that people like this do exist. They live in the same country. They even watch the same television.

Bill’s mother, a craggy, unlikable woman played by Grace Zabriskie, arrives in one episode for the birthday party of her grandson. Hostile to everyone and everything in the Henricksons’ picture-perfect house, she marches through the door, snarls at all the modern Mormon fundamentalists and says:

“Say, do you get Larry King? Nancy Grace is on tonight.”

Raise the Red-State Lantern