Feb. 23, 2006 -- HBO is taking a big gamble with its new comedy series "Big Love" about the trials and tribulations of a Viagra-popping polygamist and his three wives in suburban America.
The buzzed-about series, produced by Tom Hanks, is set to debut on March 12 after the megahit series "The Sopranos." But the risque show is already riling many Mormons, who say that it dredges up old stereotypes about the religion, which banned polygamy more than 100 years ago.
And some former polygamists worry that the comedy will minimize the real problems that polygamous families -- especially women and children -- can face.
In "Big Love," Bill Paxton plays Bill Hendrickson, a wealthy businessman from Salt Lake City who practices polygamy. With three families and three homes that he tries to hide from virtually everyone, Hendrickson has a ridiculously complicated -- and HBO hopes, watchable -- personal life. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin play his wives.
Feminist Dream or Living Hell?
The central conflict of "Big Love" revolves around Hendrickson's attempt to deal with the sex, fighting, jealousy and chaos that comes with having multiple families.
But some women say that kind of competition and backbiting isn't the reality of a polygamous life. Elizabeth Joseph writes on polygamy.com that a plural marriage is "the ultimate feminist lifestyle." She says that she's a busy journalist and that polygamy allows her to pursue her career while being assured her kids are well-tended at home.
Linda Earl, a member of a polygamous family in Central Park, Ariz., agrees. She told ABC News' "Primetime" in 2004: "I'm pretty independent. I don't want to have to dote on a guy every night. I don't want to make sure that he has a meal every night. Let somebody else do it that likes it."
And Earl said that jealousy and finding time for intimacy weren't problems either. "It's never really an issue of scheduling," she said. "Um, you just find out if there are ladies that have needs that might be a little more important than your needs. Especially, if a young lady is trying to have a child."
Her husband, who did not want his name identified, is a wealthy businessman. Despite having numerous wives, he told "Primetime" that his life wasn't one big raucous sex party.
"I think you're confusing me with Mr. Hefner down in Los Angeles," he said. "There are much cheaper ways to have sex than to maintain a plural household."
While Earl finds her arrangement beneficial, other women in polygamous homes have said they have been forced into marriage against their will and subjected to abuse.
Don't miss "Primetime" on March 2 at 10 p.m. ET, when the show continues its reporting on polygamy, as a woman who escaped a polygamous community tries to go home after being gone for 18 months.
Flora Jessop, 35, fled abuse as a teenager living in a polygamous community and has devoted her life to liberating other women from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, a tiny, breakaway group of Mormons.
Based in Colorado City, Ariz., the FLDS maintains absolute control over women's lives, Jessop said, not even allowing them to have contact with people outside the group.
Jessop said of her mission: "It's like taking someone straight from hell — and bringing them to heaven."
Vicky Prunty, 43, is a former "sister-wife" from a polygamous marriage. She left several years ago and founded Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group that aims to expose the practice and help women leave their polygamous marriages.
Prunty said her marriage was "a lot like 'Big Love' -- except I was in a double marriage, not a triple marriage. And my husband didn't take Viagra."
Joking aside, Prunty said that she had mixed feelings about the show. She hopes that it will bring attention to polygamy, but she's afraid it will gloss over some of the serious problems.
"It could minimize the problem," Prunty said. "It will probably hit more on the entertaining and humorous aspects of the life. … But it's not indicative of women with 12 children forced to have a baby every year."
Modern Mormons Miffed
Like Earl and her family, Hendrickson and his wives are supposed to be part of a fundamentalist sect of Mormonism. However, Mormonism banned taking multiple wives before the turn of the 20th century.
But that distinction is lost on most people, and many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints feel that "Big Love" exploits out-of-date stereotypes.
The church, which is based in Salt Lake City and one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, said in a statement: "Polygamy was officially discontinued in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1890. Any Church member adopting the practice today is excommunicated. Those groups which continue the practice in Utah and elsewhere have no association with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and most of their practitioners have never been among our members."
"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. It will be regrettable if this program, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimizes the seriousness of the problem."
HBO has agreed to add a disclaimer at the end of the first episode, saying that the Mormon Church has officially banned polygamy. The show's creators have also said they had spent more than two years researching the concept to make it realistic.
Mary Batchelor, who is the director of Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy organization, said that she's planning to watch the show and optimistic about its portrayal of polygamous life.
"We are planning to watch the show, are prepared for it to be 'adult' and are hopeful and excited to see our lifestyle represented in a realistic, honest way, and that includes the struggles/challenges along with the joys that are a normal part of family life," Batchelor said in an e-mail.
Prunty doubts that a totally realistic portrayal of the lifestyle is possible.
"To really understand it, somebody would really have to live it," she said. "Otherwise they'd have a difficult time grasping the complexities of the lifestyle and the abuse."
But will Prunty be watching the first episode?
"Absolutely!" she said with a laugh.