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Three’s a crowd, four’s a marriage

Times Staff Writer

MAYBE you know a family like the Henricksons. But probably not.

The father, Bill, is a genial home improvement chain store owner in Salt Lake City. He lives with three wives and seven children, in three adjacent homes in the suburbs. Needless to say, it’s complicated.

Some of their problems are the usual ones -- work, money, sex, children -- scaled up by a factor of three. The others are extraordinary. As extralegal, consenting polygamists trying to blend into respectable society, they must hide their arrangement from the neighbors, the police and the mainstream Mormon community. And then there are the fundamentalist relatives -- eccentric, corrupt and possibly homicidal -- who live off the grid in a rural compound but can’t stay out of Bill, Barb, Nicki and Margene’s life.

What glues them all together is “Big Love,” the title of HBO’s new version of the twisted family drama that attracted so many devotees to “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.” Though the modern-day polygamy might shock some and repulse, tickle or titillate others, the network and the family’s creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, expect people will relate to the Henricksons because they epitomize, in their own way, the essence of Middle American family values.

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Big love, Scheffer said, is “that bigness and generosity of heart that allows you to survive the messiness.” The series, which has 12 episodes this season, premieres March 12.

After middling successes with original series such as “Rome,” “Deadwood” and “Entourage,” and misfires such as “The Comeback,” HBO executives must surely hope “Big Love” will renew its reputation for top-notch original series. In “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” audiences related to characters who would otherwise appear alien through the ordinariness of their family lives. In “Big Love,” the characters would be quilts-on-the-wall, family-dinner-type, sports-loving suburbanites were it not for their secret life.

The ensemble project has attracted the talents of feature film veterans Bill Paxton in his first romantic lead as the square-jawed, work-a-daddy Bill; Jeanne Tripplehorn as the reluctant but solid first wife, Barb; Chloe Sevigny as the troublemaking, shopaholic second wife, Nicki; and Ginnifer Goodwin as the inexhaustible and naive third.

Besides the wives, who struggle to get along, scheme, lie and stand up for one another, the show has other unusually rich roles for women: Lois, Bill’s feisty, gun-toting mother (Grace Zabriskie); Adaleen, Nicki’s figurine-collecting fundamentalist mother (Mary Kay Place); and Sarah, Barb’s thoughtful teenage daughter (Amanda Seyfried).

Harry Dean Stanton plays Roman Grant, the particularly creepy, corrupt and possibly murderous prophet of the Juniper Creek compound who has 31 children and 187 grandchildren. Bruce Dern is Bill’s whacked-out father.

“We’re playing these characters dead earnest,” said Paxton, who portrays the head of the family with his own soft Texas lilt and the hint of a shaman’s powerful inner life. He sees Bill as a contemporary Michael Corleone figure who hopes to break away from Juniper Creek but is constantly pulled back.

Though the actors knew next to nothing about the modern-day polygamists they would play, they said they came to understand and even, in some cases, admire their characters. “Once you get past the logistics and the shock, you actually fall in love with them,” Goodwin said. The suburban Henrickson family clearly abhors such abuses as the marriage of young girls to older men on the compound, and Bill works hard to support the family and keep in touch with the children. Each wife has her own reason for choosing the situation.

“In the society we are representing, there are these women for whom this is the answer to their problems, not a problem in and of itself,” Goodwin said. “It will bowl over our audience, and will educate them.”

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Separate and apart

PREDICTABLY, the show has struck a few nerves with Mormons, who officially banned polygamy more than a century ago but can’t shake the association in the public mind. To keep church officials in the loop, but not in a consulting role, HBO scheduled several meetings with them in which they listened to the church’s concerns and shared a few rough cuts.

“Obviously, we don’t like the program,” said Mike Otterson, director of media relations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The sexuality of the program, the nature of the program, is not what we would like, relate to or recommend,” he said. “We’re a church. You wouldn’t expect us to like that sort of programming.”

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In the show, the Henricksons have the sex lives of bunnies. In demand from the enthusiastic Margene, the seductive Barb and the intense Nicki, Bill gets by with a little help from Viagra. It is clear, however, that while they also have a rich spiritual life, they are not churchgoers and do not belong to the mainstream Mormon community.

Specifically, Otterson said, “We could see just another wave of confusion about our association with polygamy. The church discontinued polygamy in 1890 and yet there are polygamous groups in the U.S. and Canada. Not all claim to have origins [in the Mormon Church], some do.”

Already, in fact, Vogue magazine is preparing a correction of an article about the show that described it as portraying Mormons, he said. The first episode will end with a clarification explaining there are 20,000 to 40,000 polygamists in the U.S. who have had no official affiliation with the church.

The idea for a show about modern-day polygamists arose one Christmas when Olsen and Scheffer, who are writing and domestic partners, were driving home from visiting relatives in Nebraska. “We were doing our seasonal TV movie go-out-and-pitch gig” Olsen said. “I said, ‘Let’s do a series on polygamy.’ ”

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The more they explored the idea, the more they realized polygamists could embody universal and admirable qualities that define the best family love. “We’re very much populists in what we’re going for. We don’t like cynical.... We want people to fall in love with these characters and to root for this family,” Olsen said. The show, produced by Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions, has become their biggest project to date.

Because the show subtly champions an expanded definition of marriage and family, one Internet critic called it a “stalking horse” for gay marriage rights. In one episode, Stanton’s character explains to fictional Los Angeles Times reporters that if courts recognize privacy rights for homosexuals, it’s time they do the same for polygamists. Later, his wives are taken aback when the headline quotes him as saying “We’re just like homosexuals.”

“We thought that made such interesting, strange and perverse bedfellows that it was just too delicious not to use,” Olsen told a gathering of television critics last month. More recently, he said they never aimed to use the show to promote gay marriage rights. “It’s a complex stew with a complex rendering,” he said. “If people in the gay community want to embrace the show, identify with their struggle, so be it.”

To achieve cultural accuracy with their scripts, they said they embarked on a steep and intensive learning curve involving historical research, discovering that families of consenting adults are common enough in cities, towns and suburbs in the intermountain West to have their own magazines and popular novels.

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Utah state officials confirmed that thousands of polygamists, like the fictional Henricksons, are leaving rural compounds and trying to fit into mainstream society. “They live among us,” said Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office. “It used to be hidden, but it’s becoming more open,” he said, noting that such families often have a hard time blending in because they were raised in isolation. Most are consenting relationships, but even among those that are abusive or coercive, prosecutions are extremely rare, partly because it is hard to find practitioners to testify, he said.

Olsen and Scheffer visited, briefly, some of the best-known fundamentalist enclaves, such as Colorado City in Arizona. They also sent away for popular novels published for the polygamist community. “They had titles like ‘The Murder of a Polygamist’ or ‘A Teenager Cries All Night,’ ” Olsen said.

Initially shocked at the tawdry material, he said he was hooked after 10 or 15 pages. The writers were inspired by the humanity of the characters and the dramatic moral decisions they must face, he said. “When a parent has to turn to a child and say, ‘Your father and I have decided we’re going to take another wife into the marriage,’ it’s insane. You just become pulled into it,” he said. “It’s riveting stuff.”

To make the characters relatable, the creators cherry-picked qualities from members of their own families -- particularly the women. The outspoken Lois, for instance was based on Olsen’s mother. “In the pilot, everything out of that character’s mouth came out of my mother’s mouth at one time or another.” His mother, he said, “went to Berkeley, studied anthropology with Margaret Mead. She’s a smart woman. At the end of the day, she is a character.”

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‘These are dream roles’

AT a time when strong female roles are rare in movies and television, “Big Love” is a candy store for actresses. “There are feminist analogies in the material,” Scheffer said. Polygamist women, who are bonded to one another as well as to their husband, have strong and close relationships, he said. “They find their power with and in each other.”

“It’s not just a marriage between a man and a woman,” explained Tripplehorn who, like the other cast members, spoke of the characters as if they were real people. “A woman doesn’t enter into that relationship without the agreement of the other woman, or women. If one had said no, then Margene wouldn’t have been in the marriage.”

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As Bill’s first wife, Barb is a mainstream Mormon whose motives for agreeing to polygamy are said to be related to a previous bout with cancer, but remain murky. “The reason she did it shows how controlling Barb is, going to pick out her husband’s new wife,” Tripplehorn said.

At first, Tripplehorn had trouble relating to her character and understanding the nuances of the relationships, she said. “Up to that point, I had never given polygamy a thought.” Eventually, she realized it is a sisterhood. “Barb has to look at Nicki and Margene as co-wives. It all boiled down to the essence of family,” she said. “They are family, and when push comes to shove they are going to be by each other’s side, possibly for eternity, I don’t know.”

Though Barb can be saintly, Tripplehorn said, “I have to remember that whenever she’s out in the world, she’s living a complete and total lie.”

In contrast, Sevigny’s Nicki grew up in the fundamentalist compound, as did Bill. A catalog shopaholic who wears braids and pioneer clothes and calls Suze Orman for advice, Nicki is the most likely to fly off the handle. “That’s why I was so attracted to her,” Sevigny said. “You don’t know what she’s going to do next.”

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Olsen and Scheffer said they wrote the part with Sevigny in mind. “We find her fascinating and enigmatic,” Olsen said. Sevigny, who had been angling for a role in “Deadwood” or any HBO drama, said she was thrilled.

“These are dream roles,” said Goodwin, who plays the playful Margene, a lonely outsider who longed to join the family expecting to find a loving, perfect environment. The three wives are the richest female characters she’s ever come across, said Goodwin, who recently portrayed the first wife of Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.”

Margene, a mother of two who still relates to the family’s teenagers more than the adults, is constantly shocked and appalled that the household doesn’t run smoothly, Goodwin said. “She exhausts me.”

Still, there remains the question of whether or not the show glamorizes the practice of polygamy.

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“I don’t think it does,” said Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. “These are people who struggle with their life. The compound shows a very different side of it. What this show does is really examine marriage as an institution.

“It’s marriage writ large.”

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Contact Lynn Smith at calendar.letters@latimes.com

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