A man goes to work, builds his business, provides for his wife and children, tries to live a life in accord with his moral principles -- all good, right? But what if his moral principles say that instead of one wife, he has three? Still good?
That's the question at the heart of HBO's 12-episode drama "Big Love," premiering Sunday, March 12. It's the creation of Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer ("Easter"), and they are executive producers with Playtone's Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman.
Bill Paxton ("Frailty," "Twister") stars as Bill Henrickson, the owner of two home-improvement stores -- with hopes of a third -- in suburban Salt Lake City, where he lives in three adjacent homes (with a single backyard) on an otherwise ordinary street. In each home is a wife and children -- all Bill's.
Before you jump to conclusions, with Utah and all, Bill's not a mainstream Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed polygamy in 1890 (the first episode has a disclaimer to that effect), but that hasn't stopped a lot of splinter groups and independent operators from continuing the practice, often on privately owned compounds. Bill came from one of those compounds, Juniper Creek, run by self-styled "Prophet" Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), who's also the father of Bill's second wife, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny).
As a young man, Bill left the compound and his parents (Bruce Dern, Grace Zabriskie), married his college sweetheart, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), had a few kids and was well on his way to monogamous bliss. But fate intervened, and now he's living a lifestyle that could get him ostracized by his Mormon neighbors and retail customers, not to mention the trouble he's in because Roman still wants his cut of Bill's growing business.
"It's a saga for my character," Paxton explains. "He's a protagonist on his hero's journey, but it's the last thing he wanted for himself. He's become what he didn't think he would become. He came out of the compound, but believe me, when he married Barb, he wanted nothing more than a monogamous family relationship. But it just wasn't meant to be for him.
"His wife got sick, and his business failed, and the only one he could turn to was his nemesis to borrow money from. Then Roman insisted Bill take care of [his daughter], just to help him get her off his hands. Then she ended up living with us. Barb didn't know if she was going to live or die."
At one point in the story, one of Nicki's brothers tells her that she was nothing more than collateral for a loan, but Paxton refutes that. "Not necessarily," he says. "It was partly that, initially, but as time went on, and she lived with us, and she really helped my wife through some tough sickness, and my wife didn't know if she was going to die and leave her family without a mother and a wife. Then when she started to get better, and this other woman, I was around her so much in the house, and I'm a guy, come on.
"My wife's sick with ovarian cancer. I don't think Barb wanted to live to see me profess my love for another woman, and when the subject got broached, it was probably one of those things when it came up, 'Hey, I've been thinking, this might sound crazy ... '
"If you were in a situation where you married your true love, and you guys went through cancer, and you had children, there was a woman -- and your background wasn't averse to this -- and you had someone who became a real family confidante, an intimate, I don't know. Who knows? It could happen."
Then there's the third wife, young Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), one of Bill's former employees and a baby sitter, who saw the Henricksons as the family she never had.
"Well," Paxton says, "you've got two wives, and you're a bigamist, you've got a polarity system. You need to bring in a buffer. That takes the heat off of the polar opposite."
It's an irony that, because of the characters' religious convictions, which bear a resemblance in areas outside polygamy to Mormonism, "Big Love" features mostly conjugal sex and almost no profanity (Margene cusses a tiny bit). This makes it about the cleanest show on HBO.
"That's something Tom Hanks brought to this project," Olsen says. "We did a table read of the first or second script, way last year, and some of the characters used some curse words. He was like, 'Gang, I don't think we want to go there. We want to be true to this.'"
In tone and style, "Big Love" is also the lightest drama HBO has aired yet, with plenty of playful humor. But Olsen and Scheffer say they're not out to make fun of anyone.
"We were not interested in doing a glib hit job on the Mormon Church either," Olsen says, "not because we're so honest and filled with integrity, but we think the landscape that exists is more interesting in its reality, in its complexity, than it is in some broad-brush stereotype."
Of course, polygamy is not all about love and family and warm, fuzzy feelings. While many polygamists are not prosecuted in Utah and neighboring states for multiple marriage per se, they are under scrutiny for possible instances of welfare fraud or child abuse. For example, Roman's latest wife is under 16 and living in a "pre-marriage placement" to circumvent age-of-consent laws.
At one point in the first five episodes, Bill anonymously offers information on Roman to Utah's "polygamy czar" -- who's been eager to find out what's going on at Juniper Creek -- to get out from under his financial demands.
"Stick with us through the year," Olsen says. "We do feel very much a responsibility not to give short shrift to the abuses of polygamy."