Real-Life Polygamists React to HBO's 'Big Love'

Big Love, the HBO drama about a polygamist family of a husband, three wives and seven children, premieres this weekend. Howard Berkes recently sat down with a group of real-life polygamists in Arizona to watch the first episode — and says their reactions were surprisingly varied.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

HBO premieres its much talked about new series Big Love on Sunday. It follows the life of one man and his three wives. NPR's Howard Berkes watched a preview of the program with a group that secretly practices plural marriage to find out what real life polygamists think about the fictional TV show.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Just across the Utah border in an Arizona desert enclave of new and elegant homes, 14 women and two men settle into living room couches and chairs.

Unidentified Woman #1: Could everybody see?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm reaching over to light between you two. Yeah, let's...

BERKES: The group faces a flat-panel plasma TV screen mounted above the fireplace. They've agreed to review the first episode of the new HBO series Big Love, if we don't name them, describe them, or reveal details about their families. That's because they live felonious lives. They're all members of a polygamous religious community based in Centennial Park, Arizona. They worry that admitting their polygamy on the radio could get them arrested, cost them their jobs, or cost their businesses, clients and customers. Some have high hopes for this HBO series.

Unidentified Woman #2: I think we hope to see that our culture or way of life is presented as normal. That we are normal people in committed relationships with good families, just on a bigger scale.

Unidentified Woman #1: I think it would be really lovely to see a respect for our belief system, so that it's not just a laughing stock type of a situation, if that makes sense. And some of those stereotypes, it would be nice to have some of those stereotypes erased by this piece.

BERKES: Stereotypes like?

Unidentified Woman #1: They range everywhere from it's all about the bedroom to women are brainwashed idiots. I mean, there's just a whole slew of them.

BERKES: Big Love opens each week with a metaphoric scene on a frozen pond. Bill skates out onto the ice with First Wife Barb, Second Wife Nicki, and Third Wife Marge. They circle hand in hand until the thin ice cracks beneath them. There's laughter from the group watching, but that fades and arms fold tightly, with the first scene in the first episode, Bill making love with one of his wives.

Unidentified Woman #1: And where do they start, right off the bat?

BERKES: Sex is a big thread in Big Love, a stereotype the group fears.

Unidentified Woman #1: I think that we look upon such things as sacred to us. And these types of things cheapen it, to have it displayed like that. It's obviously the joke. This is the joke. And also, it's making it look like this is the motive. You know?

Unidentified Woman #2: It's going to be the lifestyle. The motive is going to be the lifestyle as being able to have all sexual relationships. It's not the motive at all.

BERKES: Big Love's first episode does suggest a religious motive.

(Soundbite of Big Love)

Mr. BILL PAXTON (as Bill Henrickson): Our Dear Father in heaven, we present ourselves to thee and all our thanks for blessings bestowed.

BERKES: In this scene, the family prays over a picnic table dinner. They're gathered in a joint backyard behind their three adjacent homes. Bill and Barb and Nicki and Marge bow their heads and hold hands with their seven children.

Mr. PAXTON (as Bill Henrickson): Please bless us all as your loving family sealed together through time and all eternity. Amen.

BERKES: This is something the group watching appreciates. They derive their polygamy from the teachings of Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet. Mormons reject polygamy now and their church excommunicates polygamists. But tens of thousands of people still embrace those rejected principles.

Unidentified Man (Polygamist): It's very religious based, based on the things that Joseph Smith taught. But it goes beyond Joseph Smith. Abraham was a polygamous, Isaac, Jacob, these were polygamist people. So it goes back into the Old Testament as well. We feel like we're living the order of the Gospel as it truly is.

BERKES: Big Love doesn't dwell on any of that. It focuses on the logistics of polygamy, who gets to sleep with whom and when. That triggers nods of disbelief in this group. There's also the challenge of supporting three full households, and the shadows and secrets of illegal lives.

The series takes a dark turn with a place and a people that hits close to home in Centennial Park. In this scene, First Wife Barb resists a trip back to an isolated polygamist compound led by a menacing prophet.

(Soundbite of Big Love)

Ms. JEANNE TRIPPLEHORN (as Barbara Dutton Henrickson): The seediness, the corruption, old men preying on young helpless girls. Prophets? Try con artists, all of them, I swear.

BERKES: The prophet in Big Love seems to be based on Warren Jeffs, the real life leader of a group called the FLDS Church; it dominates two towns a mile up the road from Centennial Park. Jeffs is a federal fugitive accused of facilitating child sexual abuse. Former members say the FLDS group forces girls, as young as 13, to marry men decades older. The Centennial Park community shares a common heritage with Jeffs' followers, but not their brand of polygamy. So there's concern that the prophet and the compound in the HBO series will taint the image of polygamy for HBO viewers.

Unidentified Woman #2: If I were one of those people, my gosh. I would wonder what in the world, we have people like that in America today? I mean, my concept of a polygamist would be pretty bad, especially since we want polygamy decriminalized, because we do want to embrace fully and openly how we believe. And it's going to be more of an uphill battle after America gets a hold of this. They're not going to see this as these people have values to their lives. They're going to see us as a sideshow.

BERKES: But some in the group note all the airtime given to Bill and his three wives, the support they give each other and the commitment to making it work.

Unidentified Man: I like the fact that it wasn't all in the compound. That there was the side, the working side to this thing that was more on a real family level. And I think it does show that it can work. You know, people can live together in these relationships. It does work. And in that sense, it may show people in America that, hey, if that's what people choose, they certainly can have that.

BERKES: At closing credits and music roll, the chatting continues. The other polygamist man in the room, who's been silent throughout, tells me off-mike he can't wait to see the next episode. Big Love isn't real he says, but it is entertaining, even for some of the polygamists in Centennial Park, Arizona.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song I Love America)

Mr. DAVID BYRNE (Singing) And I love America, but boy can she be cruel. And I know how tall she is, without her platform shoes.

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