After the raid of a Texas polygamist sect last April, the creators of HBO's hit series "Big Love," which chronicles the lives of a fictional polygamist family, went straight to work – adapting and rewriting to make the show's third season as realistic as possible for viewers who have been captivated by a subculture previously shrouded in mystery.
"We began to write the season in advance of the raid in Texas," said Mark Olsen, the co-creator of the series. Olsen said that the raid occurred during last year's writers' strike, and so when the staff returned they got right to work.
"We had to make the series relevant," said Olsen. "We couldn't have this season fail to acknowledge the events that had transpired in these characters' lives."
"It would be like 'Sex and the City' not acknowledging that the Twin Towers were not there anymore," he said.
The Yearning for Zion Ranch, a compound run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was raided in April 2008 after state authorities received calls reportedly from juveniles claiming sexual abuse. Texas Child Protective services then removed hundreds of children from the care of their parents while they investigated claims that the sect forced underage girls to marry older men and bred young men to become sexual abusers.
The more than 430 children were returned to their parents in June, a month after first being separated from their families. The investigation is ongoing.
But Olsen and show co-creator Will Sheffer said that the Texas raid was actually a double-edged sword in terms of the show.
While it made their show more culturally relevant it also associated the series with one of the most "unsavory" news stories of the year.
"When we get this publicity in the real world we really don't know whether it's a boom or a bust," said Scheffer.
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"Both Scheffer and I feel that when these events [like the raid in Texas] happen it is unsavory and tawdry and pushes a lot of buttons when you see these women with the robotic mannerisms – it's a real mixed weapon for us," said Olsen, who did agree that the news in the real world gave the show a good backdrop of relevancy.
At the time of the raid in Texas "Big Love" was on hiatus, a coincidence the creators say they were grateful for at the time.
"We got a phone call from HBO saying 'what a bummer' that we weren't on the air," said Olsen. "But our instincts were more like thank god we're not going on the air right now especially with all the extremely unpleasant imagery [coming out of the raid]."
"Viewers wouldn't want to embrace someone like Warren Jeffs on Sunday night before they go back to work," said Olsen.
Olsen and Scheffer still recognized the unique creative opportunity the raid in Texas gave them for the show, spurring them to revise the script to more closely mirror what viewers had seen unfold in real life.
"The raid gave us the opportunity to get more into what the underbelly of polygamy is and to explore the manipulation and kind of illegal and hurtful activities that are going on on the compound," said Olsen.
Olsen said that he and Scheffer incorporated the fear of an impending raid of the ranch, Juniper Creek, on "Big Love" much more in the show's upcoming third season.
"[The 'Big Love' characters] are absolutely wondering if Juniper Creek will get raided," said Olsen. "There's a kind of palpable tension."
In the season premiere of "Big Love," scheduled to air Sunday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. EST, Roman, the prophet of the fictional Juniper Creek ranch, is up on charges similar to those that Warren Jeffs, the prophet or leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, faced last year.
Jeffs was convicted in September 2008 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for being an accessory to rape for coercing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin.
"We have Roman up on the same charges as Jeffs had faced," said Olsen. "We embrace that similarity."
And the Roman-Jeffs similarity is only the beginning, said Olsen and Scheffer, who said that they did the research for the show themselves – without full-time consultants – reading everything they find about the subject.
"We're huge fans of anything related to research and accuracy," said Olsen. "When we started out it was a little difficult and we had to dig deep – [polygamy] wasn't exactly on the front pages."
"These days we just have to turn on the news," he said.
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One of the main story lines on "Big Love" involved Nikki Grant, one of the three wives of Bill Henrickson.
Grant, who is the daughter of prophet Roman, takes a job at a local law firm this season, claiming that she's trying to atone for an expensive shopping addiction.
But it's soon revealed that Grant's job at the law firm is not as innocent as it seems. She and other members of the sect have started working on the firm to gather information on the trials of several Jane Doe's who are responsible for putting the compound's prophet, Roman, behind bars.
This story line too, said Olsen, is based loosely on actual events within the polygamist community.
"Is that story line preposterous? Yes," said Olsen. "But is that story line based on fact? The answer to that is also 'yes.'"
"We embroider it somewhat but the was a case where a woman from a sect, Laura Chapman, got a job as a legal assistant to one of the judges in Salt Lake City," he said. "As it turns out, she just happened to be a sister wife from the Kingston clan and the judge she was working for just happened to be hearing a case of one of the Kingston men."
Even the costume designs of the women on the compound in "Big Love" were altered following the Texas raid. Previously, the women on "Big Love" had always worn more muted colors.
"Olsen predicted awhile back when the real thing happened that we'd be faced with real images and also the opportunity to be reasonable and jump off and use those images creatively," said Scheffer.
"We saw those pastel colors that all the women were wearing [during the Texas raid]," said Scheffer. "Now we have a lot of that palette going on the show."
Olsen said "Big Love" will also examine the demeanor of the women on the compound.
During the Texas raid much attention was paid to what Olsen refers to as the "robotic" nature of the polygamist women. Figuring out how to work that into the show has been imperative, the creators said.
"I have to say truthfully we found [the FLDS women] extremely disturbing," said Olsen. "The robotic kind of look and aspect to it was disturbing."
"We brought forward a new character – a woman named Jodean – to play that role," he said. "She mutely nods her head in the first episode."
"And as creators of the show we're watching her and sort of exploring what we think of these women – are they credible or are they brainwashed?" said Olsen.
On the eve of the premiere, Olsen and Scheffer are hopeful that those who aren't already watching "Big Love" will be more open to the show's controversial topic.
"We both felt that anyone who is remotely interested in polygamy are already watching the show," said Olsen. "What we have to do is reach those people for whom polygamy is an instinctive turn off."
"A lot of people don't believe that a world like this exists – it's wacky," he said. "But they do exist."
"There are families like the one on 'Big Love' in Salt Lake City. We've seen it."