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Three's a crowd, four's a marriage

HBO's `Big Love' probes the polygamists next door. It's family values of the provocative kind.

February 26, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

MAYBE you know a family like the Henricksons. But probably not.

The father, Bill, is a genial home improvement chain store owner in Salt Lake City. He lives with three wives and seven children, in three adjacent homes in the suburbs. Needless to say, it's complicated.

Some of their problems are the usual ones -- work, money, sex, children -- scaled up by a factor of three. The others are extraordinary. As extralegal, consenting polygamists trying to blend into respectable society, they must hide their arrangement from the neighbors, the police and the mainstream Mormon community. And then there are the fundamentalist relatives -- eccentric, corrupt and possibly homicidal -- who live off the grid in a rural compound but can't stay out of Bill, Barb, Nicki and Margene's life.

What glues them all together is "Big Love," the title of HBO's new version of the twisted family drama that attracted so many devotees to "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under." Though the modern-day polygamy might shock some and repulse, tickle or titillate others, the network and the family's creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, expect people will relate to the Henricksons because they epitomize, in their own way, the essence of Middle American family values.

Big love, Scheffer said, is "that bigness and generosity of heart that allows you to survive the messiness." The series, which has 12 episodes this season, premieres March 12.

After middling successes with original series such as "Rome," "Deadwood" and "Entourage," and misfires such as "The Comeback," HBO executives must surely hope "Big Love" will renew its reputation for top-notch original series. In "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under," audiences related to characters who would otherwise appear alien through the ordinariness of their family lives. In "Big Love," the characters would be quilts-on-the-wall, family-dinner-type, sports-loving suburbanites were it not for their secret life.

The ensemble project has attracted the talents of feature film veterans Bill Paxton in his first romantic lead as the square-jawed, work-a-daddy Bill; Jeanne Tripplehorn as the reluctant but solid first wife, Barb; Chloe Sevigny as the troublemaking, shopaholic second wife, Nicki; and Ginnifer Goodwin as the inexhaustible and naive third.

Besides the wives, who struggle to get along, scheme, lie and stand up for one another, the show has other unusually rich roles for women: Lois, Bill's feisty, gun-toting mother (Grace Zabriskie); Adaleen, Nicki's figurine-collecting fundamentalist mother (Mary Kay Place); and Sarah, Barb's thoughtful teenage daughter (Amanda Seyfried).

Harry Dean Stanton plays Roman Grant, the particularly creepy, corrupt and possibly murderous prophet of the Juniper Creek compound who has 31 children and 187 grandchildren. Bruce Dern is Bill's whacked-out father.

"We're playing these characters dead earnest," said Paxton, who portrays the head of the family with his own soft Texas lilt and the hint of a shaman's powerful inner life. He sees Bill as a contemporary Michael Corleone figure who hopes to break away from Juniper Creek but is constantly pulled back.

Though the actors knew next to nothing about the modern-day polygamists they would play, they said they came to understand and even, in some cases, admire their characters. "Once you get past the logistics and the shock, you actually fall in love with them," Goodwin said. The suburban Henrickson family clearly abhors such abuses as the marriage of young girls to older men on the compound, and Bill works hard to support the family and keep in touch with the children. Each wife has her own reason for choosing the situation.

"In the society we are representing, there are these women for whom this is the answer to their problems, not a problem in and of itself," Goodwin said. "It will bowl over our audience, and will educate them."

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Separate and apart

PREDICTABLY, the show has struck a few nerves with Mormons, who officially banned polygamy more than a century ago but can't shake the association in the public mind. To keep church officials in the loop, but not in a consulting role, HBO scheduled several meetings with them in which they listened to the church's concerns and shared a few rough cuts.

"Obviously, we don't like the program," said Mike Otterson, director of media relations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "The sexuality of the program, the nature of the program, is not what we would like, relate to or recommend," he said. "We're a church. You wouldn't expect us to like that sort of programming."

In the show, the Henricksons have the sex lives of bunnies. In demand from the enthusiastic Margene, the seductive Barb and the intense Nicki, Bill gets by with a little help from Viagra. It is clear, however, that while they also have a rich spiritual life, they are not churchgoers and do not belong to the mainstream Mormon community.

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