Polygamists give "Big Love" mixed reviews

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah Mon Jun 11, 2007 9:32am EDT

1 of 5. Cast members (from L-R) Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin and Chloe Sevigny pose at the premiere of the HBO original series 'Big Love' at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, California June 7, 2007. The television series premieres on June 11.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Reuters) - As "Big Love" enters a second season Monday, the HBO series about a fictional polygamous family is inspiring emotions from pride to fury among real polygamists where the show is set in a Salt Lake City suburb.

"There's a certain truth to it," said Anne Wilde, a 71-year-old widow who was part of a family of plural wives for 33 years.

"Here's a family of three wives that lives in the community and they just blend into the neighborhood, although they don't say too much about it."

But Wilde said she blocks her eyes when scenes get intimate and bridles at the show's trademark sexual tension, saying it's too racy for many of the estimated 37,000 fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy in Utah and Arizona.

"Big Love" centers on the struggles of Viagra-popping polygamist Bill Hendrickson to balance rival affections and demands of his three spouses -- first wife and leader of the pack Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn); wife No. 2 and compulsive shopper Nicki (Chloe Sevigny); and wife No. 3 Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the youngest, most pliant and most sexual.

The Salt Lake City, Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church, has said the family in "Big Love" are not part of the Mormon church, which introduced polygamy before the Civil War but banned it in 1890.

Excommunicated by mainstream Mormons, polygamists see themselves as purists of the faith as it was practiced by founder Joseph Smith, whom historians say took more than two dozen wives. Polygamy is a felony in Utah, but polygamists are seldom prosecuted unless they commit additional crimes.

"NOT THE WAY I FEEL"

Valerie, a fashionable suburban mother with elegantly coiffed blond hair who is one of three wives in a family of 21 children, said the hierarchy depicted in "Big Love" is off the mark. The first wife, she said, is not always the most powerful and domineering of the bunch.

But like the show's bread-winning male, played by Bill Paxton, her husband conceals the full extent of their family from co-workers, which is why she declined to use her last name in an interview.

"My husband is a professional and he has company parties, meetings with clients and sometimes wives are involved, and he can't just take all of us. He has to pick one that is the wife that people see," she said.

"Juniper Creek," a fictional area where Hendrickson was raised, resembles the real-life Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), an isolated sect on the Utah-Arizona border run by Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs was arrested in August and charged as an accomplice to rape for using his authority to order a 14-year-old girl against her wishes to marry and have sex with her 19-year-old cousin.

"I watched the show for about 10 minutes," said Enos Steed, 21, who left the FLDS in 2003. "I was just like 'Whatever'. It's not real accurate. It's funny. It's just not interesting to me, probably because I lived it."

Ephraim Hammon, who has two wives and eight children, disagrees with some of the show.

"But I think it does open up people's minds to the concept that it can happen and that probably makes people more accepting to some degree," he said.

"Our neighbors get a kick out of it," adds his wife, Leah, in the family's home in Centennial Park, Arizona, where about 1,500 people live in polygamy.

When Hammon's town voted on a name for a new local cafe, one of the most popular choices was "Big Love Cafe" -- a verdict that caused a chuckle when it was announced in church.

But the people of Centennial Park reckoned it was legally tricky and settled on the "Merry Wives Cafe" instead. It's been a hit with tourists since opening in January.

"I hated the name Merry Wives at first," said manager Charise Dutson. "They had to talk me into it,"

"When we ordered our sign, they were like, 'Oh Merry Wife' and I was like 'No, wives'," she said. "I don't think the Mormons like it very much."