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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This Sunday HBO introduces a new show in a prime slot, right after the premiere of the new season of the Sopranos. Like the Sopranos, Big Love is the story of a family, and like the Sopranos and the other HBO hit Six Feet Under, it's about an unusual family. HBO is hoping that if viewers were drawn to watching the inner world of the mafia and undertakers, they'll be equally hooked on getting a glimpse of what it's to be part of a polygamist family. Here is NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Big Love follows the lives of polygamist Bill Henrickson, his three wives and their many children as they try to live life as normally as possible in a typical American suburb. Except for his lifestyle, and that's a pretty big exception, Henrickson, as played by Bill Paxton, is an average guy. Head of a successful business, he is a good employer, a devoted, though overextended, father, and a man who really seems to want to make his wives happy.

Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer are co-creators and executive producers of Big Love. Olsen says even they aren't always sure how to describe the show.

Mr. MARK OLSEN (Executive Producer, Big Love): Is it an upside version of Cheaper by the Dozen? Is it Father Knows Best on acid? I mean, it's sort of all those things wrapped up into one. It's every man through the strangest lens imaginable.

NEARY: The wives, ranging from level-leaded wife number one to giddy immature wife number three, with very high maintenance wife number two wedged in between, vie for their husband's attention both in and out of bed. In this scene, the three of them, played by Gene Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin, work out their schedule with their husband.

(Soundbite of movie 'Big Love')

Unidentified Woman: What about Wayne's birthday, he turns five on the seventeenth.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, my heck, that's right. I can't believe it.

Unidentified Woman: Well, he should be with his father on his birthday.

Unidentified Woman: Well, it looks like the seventeenth is family home evening anyway.

Unidentified Woman: I don't (inaudible) at our house all night though. You don't mind Margie, do you?

MARGIE: Oh, no, I don't mind at all, not at all.

Unidentified Woman: You got a problem with it, boss lady?

NEARY: Though set in Salt Lake City, both HBO and the show's creators have taken pains to make it clear that the Mormon Church has banned polygamy and excommunicates anyone who practices it. And while the family is seen praying, Big Love has a largely secular tone as it explores the messiness of a polygamist's family's life and all that entails, conflicting needs, financial worries, petty jealousies. Still, Mark Olsen says, a certain religiosity underpins everything.

Mr. OLSEN: Let's put it this way, if Joseph Smith had not had his revelations about polygamy and had it not been part of the Mormon tradition, this family would not exist. Now, they are, it's difficult to dramatize that because they are not part of an organized compound where that is practiced, and they cannot be part of the formal LDS church. So they have no real home for their religious beliefs, and they're somewhat unmoored because of it.

NEARY: HBO met with officials of the Mormon Church and even sent them copies of early versions of the show. Kim Farah, a spokesperson for the church, attended one of the screenings.

Ms. KIM FARAH (Spokesperson for Mormon Church): It was uncomfortable because of the content and the sexual themes right off the bat. The scene that coupled with streets of downtown Salt Lake City and landmarks that we're familiar with was very disconcerting.

NEARY: Farah says the church is concerned that Big Love will cause the public to blur the line between Mormons and polygamy, and she says the church is also worried the show will gloss over some of the problems associated with polygamy.

Ms. FARAH: Anyone who lives in Utah is aware of those who do practice polygamy. And of late, over the last couple of years, some of the abuses that have happened in those communities, particularly concerning women and children, have come to light in news reports. And that's very concerning to anyone.

Mr. JON KRAKAUER (Author): Wherever I see polygamy, I mostly see misery.

NEARY: Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith has been studying polygamy for many years. Though he hasn't seen Big Love, he is curious about it, and he too is concerned that the show may leave viewers with the wrong impression.

Mr. KRAKAUER: The good polygamist, the Bill Paxton character who is appealing and his appealing wives, it's not like that, never happens, but that's so rare. I mean, creepiness is the perfect word to describe these cultures. It's, it is really kind of sick. And wherever, it's just wherever you see polygamy, you see a lot of bad stuff.

NEARY: Big Love does portray the menacing side of polygamy in the character of Roman Grant, played by Harry Dean Stanton. The patriarch of the polygamist compound where Bill was raised, Roman is both threatening and creepy. And as it turns out, Bill owes him a debt, a debt he may never be able to fully pay.

(Soundbite of movie Big Love)

Mr. HARRY DEAN: (As Roman Grant) You can put it anywhere you want, Bill. Have your attorneys arrange it any way you please. But we get 15 percent of anything you do. Listen to me, son, carefully. There's man's law and there's God's law, and I think you know which side I'm on.

NEARY: Olsen and Scheffer say they knew if they wanted Big Love to be credible, it had to portray this side of polygamy.

Mr. OLSEN: And it's a large part of the polygamist world, which are these compounds that grew up in a very peculiar, enforced isolation, and sort of mutated on their own into what they've become today, which in certain instances are very repressive, very corrupt places.

Mr. WILL SCHEFFER (Executive Producer, Big Love): It's a darker world certainly, and we felt the responsibility to dramatize some of the more, the darker aspects of polygamy as it exists.

NEARY: The polygamy of the compound stands in sharp contrast to the relatively benign polygamy of Bill and his three wives. But in the end, it is this portrayal of polygamy in the suburbs that dominates the show.

Heather Havrilesky who writes about TV for salon.com says she found this depiction of polygamy to be a little goofy, but she liked it.

Ms. HEATHER HAVRILESKY (Writer, Salon.com): It's kind of fun and it's sort of fascinating and it pulls you in. And what's amazing about it is that the creators of the show actually manage to get you into the mindset of the people so that you're rooting for this polygamist family and, you know, trying to keep them safe from those terrible monogamist outsiders out there.

NEARY: Olsen and Scheffer say they really are not trying to push an agenda with Big Love. They just think of it as a show about what it means to be a family. And, they say, they base a lot of it on their own non-polygamist families.

Mr. OLSEN: This is our homage to the families that we grew up in, to the sort of big, messy, complicated American families that both Will and I come from, and grew up in.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And it's not a cynical vision. I think that's the other important thing. It's a show about family values. It may be subversive, but it's not cynical.

NEARY: Overall, it seems the impression Olsen and Scheffer hope to convey is that polygamists, perhaps like mafiosos and undertakers really aren't so different after all.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: You can see a preview of Big Love at our website, npr.org.

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