Love Is in the Air

NEW YORK Introduce people to political agendas without presenting them didactically from a dais and they’re more likely to tune in and take them on. Couch it in literature, put it to song, or have actors espouse ideas as their own, and a person’s opinions, if they don’t outright change, might at least become more flexible. It’s easier to learn about genocide in Africa when Bono sets it to music. And if ABC News is going to hit us with an on-the-one-hand-or-on-the-other piece about presidential candidate (and Massachusetts governor) Mitt Romney and whether or not the country cares that he’s a Mormon, why not show a clip from Big Love, HBO’s soap opera-ish drama about a Mormon family practicing polygamy? It’s kind of like watching the news, only more entertaining.

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated Big Love, which recently began its second season (2.2 million viewers tuned in for its season premiere), stars Bill Paxton as a Mormon living outside the church community with his three wives, roles inhabited by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin. Its envelope-pushing premise has not only been an easy way to insert Romney’s religious beliefs into the political debate, but it’s been used by pundits and viewers of all stripes to discuss a host of contemporary issues from gay marriage to feminism.

It’s understandable, perhaps, why some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka Mormons, launched a letter-writing campaign to HBO complaining about the show’s allegedly negative portrayal of their religion. Polygamy was outlawed by the church more than a century ago, yet Big Love presents it as a favorable option for a devout Mormon. And its very existence in a weekly TV drama that rarely shows how most Mormons live monogamous lives might indeed cause some to cross “Join the church” off their to-do lists. (The church, however, which has now grown to more than 13 million members worldwide, is not exactly struggling.)

“The show was intended to be about family and marriage and that’s how we pitched it to HBO. They got it immediately,” explains Big Love’s Mark Olsen, who created the show with Will Scheffer. “It was driven by ‘Let’s pick something extreme.'”

But that it happened to be about a polygamous marriage, he adds, was indeed a red flag. “When our agents understood that this was really about Mormon polygamy and not about swingers in the hot tub, they said, ‘Oh, maybe you should drop this.’ I think people find the idea of suburban swingers more acceptable than Mormons who are from a conservative [albeit Mormon] family,” Olsen says.

While putting a polygamous family into Americans’ living rooms might have had some expected repercussions, one contemporary issue that Big Love has raised surprised even its creators. This past March, the National Review’s online columnist Stanley Kurtz wrote an impassioned takedown of what he saw as the show’s subtle but intentional and nefarious agenda of promoting gay marriage—a view echoed elsewhere on the Internet. His argument had something to do with that fact that simply questioning what defines a family is akin to undermining family values, and before you know it, homosexuals will be asking for the right to be married. (As if they haven’t done this already.)

Scheffer and Olsen, who happen to be a gay (and unmarried) couple of almost two decades, say this perplexes them. “We simply wanted to tell a story about family. … This is a celebration of the wonderful messiness of the American family,” says Olsen.

Another issue raised by the series is whether it sets back feminism by decades, given that its three women compete for the attentions of one man. Never mind that some single women feel that this “competition” is exactly the reality of the dating world, and that there surely are married women out there who, at least in their fantasies, would welcome another bride or two to take their husbands on if only for the chance to read a book in peace. The blogsphere buzzes with the debate, such as this posting on academinist.com: “Is HBO trying to tell us that hey, a guy’s got needs, and women should learn to be less jealous and accept this so they can be kept in big houses with big secrets?”

The National Organization for Women, however, looks askance at those who view Big Love as reality. “The only thing I can say about it is the show is fiction,” says NOW spokesperson Mai Shiozaki. “It’s HBO original programming and people watching should understand that.”

HBO and Creature, the Seattle-based advertising agency that created the campaign for Big Love, is clearly aimed at those who can separate fiction from fact. The satiric campaign that promoted the second season—including TV spots, print ads and videos placed on YouTube and hbo.com/biglove—included takeoffs of perfume and Viagra commercials. They were targeted to the East and West Coasts, with print ads placed in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times. (The fragrance ad, illustrated with a woman holding a laundry basket near a sheet drying in the breeze, read, “Eau de Polygamie. Set yourself apart from his other wives”; another ad reads, “Polybrook Haven,” a housing community with room for every wife.)

The show is clearly being promoted by HBO with tongue firmly in cheek. But to many of its fans, there’s more to the show than the exaggerated and addictive drama of a soap. The power of fiction lies in its ability to illustrate universal truths. Sex and the City didn’t resonate because the characters were realistic. Yes, we’ve all been or known plenty of single women in their 30s with a hankering for good shoes and bad boys. But the over-the-top way the characters were portrayed was both foreign enough and identifiable enough that we could watch without wincing, allowing us to see that any similar feelings or experiences didn’t make us freaks. If Carrie, with endless hours at hand for grooming and introspection, was struggling to relate to herself and the men around her, who could blame the rest of us who actually had to work desk jobs for a living if we did the same thing?

It was the same with Seinfeld, another show that had great cultural resonance. Anyone who has ever lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—or lived anywhere, for that matter—knows it’s the rare building that has people like the fictional Jerry Seinfeld and Kramer living off the same hallway. And the show wasn’t a smash because all its viewers lived on the Upper West Side while the rest of the country was watching reruns of Leave It to Beaver; the show was a hit because the creators allowed the characters to talk about what many of us are thinking, to both comfort us and allow us to laugh at our own absurdities without having to be the butt of the joke.

When we take what we watch literally, we miss the fun and we’re the chumps. After all, even reality shows are scripted. Big Love is no different. At its heart it is a series intended to make us feel less isolated and more comfortable with ourselves, reminding us, while engrossing us in dramas that thankfully aren’t our own, of the mercurial situations that arise from our relationships with friends, lovers, children and ourselves.

Romney may not win, and he may not win because he’s a Mormon, but chances are slim that he would lose because voters watch Big Love. And while the show may present, on the surface of things, three wives vying for the attention of one man, it’s a good bet that the audience turning into HBO, a pay-cable service that is a chosen, well-branded luxury, is sophisticated enough to separate reality from fiction.

That isn’t to say that we should necessarily turn on the TV, laugh and then go straight to bed. The best dramas, satires and comedies make us think. And Big Love’s creators would be thrilled if we did just that. But not, they say, about women’s place in society, or the pros and cons of polygamy.

“In this country, we get so wrapped up in the argument about what makes a family,” says Scheffer. “What we ideally want from this show is for audiences to take away that no matter how messy a family may be, it’s a great, great thing.” And no matter what your political views, that’s a hard thing to argue.