Monday, February 6, 2006

HBO, famed for its edgy shows on families in organized crime and the funeral home business, is betting that viewers also will be fascinated with a show on a polygamous family.

“Bill Henrickson is about to find out just how challenging life as a modern-day polygamist can be,” HBO says of its “Big Love” series, which debuts March 12 at 10 p.m., right after “The Sopranos,” the network’s award-winning series on mob life.

Bill Paxton stars as the “Big Love” husband who lives with three wives and seven children in side-by-side homes. Only his best friend and co-worker, also a polygamist, knows of his lifestyle. Relationship squabbles are a recurring theme, and an early episode involves Bill Henrickson’s need for Viagra.

HBO “Big Love” co-creator Mark V. Olsen said he and colleague Will Scheffer see polygamy as “a really interesting lens” for a family show.

“We don’t have any axes to grind,” Mr. Scheffer said during a recent press event. “We’re very interested in exploring marriage and the struggle of a family to maintain itself.”

The show will not be about “three babes in a hot tub,” Mr. Olsen added. “A glib, cynical show is very easy to do. But it’s an absolute mandate for us to make sure the story lines aren’t pat, or judgmental, or cynical, or too hip. It has to be about the characters.”

A show on polygamy fits with the current “weird reality show kind of theme,” said Carrie Gordon Earll of Focus on the Family.

“From a cultural standpoint, the peculiar makes news,” she said. “If it were normal, nobody would want to watch it.”

Viewers should always question the message behind the entertainment, Mrs. Earll added. A show about polygamy “runs the risk of desensitizing Americans to something that is illegal and, from what we’ve heard from those who left the lifestyle, can be quite abusive and exploitative of teenage girls.”

Polygamous families also have been concerned about how the show will treat the lifestyle, said Anne Wilde, a spokeswoman for the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices.

It’s unlikely that a “Hollywoodized version of polygamy” will capture the religious aspect of the practice, she said.

Still, Mrs. Wilde said, the HBO series might show that polygamy “isn’t all that different from monogamous families and should be a viable lifestyle for those who choose it.”

The “Big Love” family lives in Utah and is religious, but its church affiliation is not disclosed. Each episode reportedly will start with a disclaimer that the state’s dominant Mormon church does not sanction polygamy.

“Polygamy was officially discontinued in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890,” the church said in a statement about the show in October. “Any church member adopting the practice today is excommunicated.”

However, some Mormon splinter groups say the 1890 ruling was illegitimate and continue to practice polygamy.

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