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Last Updated: Friday, 10 March 2006, 08:41 GMT
Polygamy drama debuts on US TV
By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Los Angeles

Bill Paxton in Big Love
Big Love's provocative content looks set to divide viewers
Polygamy drama Big Love, about a man with three wives, is the latest TV series to hit the headlines in the US.

The series, from the makers of Sex And The City and The Sopranos, stars Bill Paxton as DIY store owner Bill Henrickson and Chloe Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin, as his three wives.

Even before being aired, the show - set in Utah, home to the Mormon church - has succeeded in stirring up a spirited debate on the issue of polygamy, the practice of having more than one wife at the same time.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official name of the Mormon church, abandoned the practice more than a century ago. It is also banned under the Utah constitution.

It will be regrettable if this programme, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimises the seriousness of the problem
Statement released by the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-day Saints

"The Church has long been concerned about the continued illegal practice of polygamy, and, in particular, about reports of child and wife abuse emanating from polygamous communities today," said the Church in a statement.

"It will be regrettable if this programme, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimises the seriousness of the problem."

Big distinction

The statement continues: "Placing the series in Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the programme's subject matter, and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes.

"Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great mind."

Ginnifer Goodwin
Actress Goodwin starred in the Oscar-winning Walk the Line

The show, produced by the Home Box Office (HBO) cable network, makes it clear, through a disclaimer at the end of the first episode, that the characters are not Mormon.

"I think what the show does very clearly is it makes a very big distinction between the mainline Church and the characters in the show," says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment.

"It is interesting how many people are ignorant about the Mormon church and think that the Morman church actually does condone polygamy.

"So in an odd way, the show is sort of beneficial in drawing that distinction."

'Human condition'

The series looks certain to divide viewers, with some provocative performances in the leading roles.

"It's kind of an interesting idea to take this kind of taboo thing, yet examine the human condition through it," says Twister star Paxton, 40.

Some episodes are almost sitcom-like. Other scenes are far more subtle and sophisticated
David Kronke

"Really, in much of the way that James Gandolfini is in The Sopranos, I'm a guy, 40-something, who's struggling with his business and with his family life. It just happens to be ... an unorthodox family with three wives."

According to David Kronke, a critic from the Los Angeles Daily News who has seen the first five episodes of the show, the viewer is left unsure whether to love or loathe the polygamous Bill Henrickson.

'Subtle animal'

"It's a quandary we find ourselves in, that I haven't really experienced watching television before," says Kronke.

"Some episodes are almost sitcom-like. Other scenes are far more subtle and sophisticated."

HBO is either sitting on the natural replacement for The Sopranos or a series that will prove too shocking, too unpalatable, for an American audience. Nonetheless, rights to the show have already been bought by the UK's channel Five.

"You can watch it and be interested in what is going on and find what they're saying about family life and family culture and the 21st Century interesting," says Mr Kronke.

"But it's not like an episode of 24 where at the end you want to see the next episode immediately."

"It is a more subtle animal than that, which is a good thing and may also be to its detriment."

Big Love premieres in the US on HBO on Sunday 12 March.

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