Years before TLC launched its polygamous reality show Sister Wives, Tom Hanks and company produced HBO's award-winning drama series Big Love, about a family of polygamists who emerged out of a creepy Mormon splinter group.
I've watched all five seasons of Big Love, including Sunday night's series finale. Creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer told the Los Angeles Times this week that the series emerged from their marriage, with the goal of communicating the idea that marriages can endure change. What appealed to me about the show was how it parsed the challenges of breaking free from a closed religious community while grappling with the community's best ideals and penetrating reach.
The fact that the show was built around polygamy wasn't a hindrance for a variety of reasons, not the least because of a conversation I had with an African friend who compared American "serial monogamy" unfavorably with his own culture's polygamy. Also, by dislocating the faith struggle outside familiar television narratives, Big Love made the subject seem fresh rather than tired.
The plot centered on two families from the sect, the Grants and the Hendricksons. The Grants represent legalism and corruption, while the Hendricksons represent an amalgam of religious identities. Bill Hendrickson was kicked out of "the compound" as a teenager and was taken into the Mormon fold, where he met and married Barb, a woman of high Mormon pedigree. After many years of marriage, Bill senses a call back to polygamy. Barb goes along with his vision after a life-changing bout with cancer. Bill marries Nicki Grant, the daughter of his arch-nemesis Roman Grant, and then Margene, a much younger woman with sparse religious identity.
All manner of chaos ensued as the Hendricksons sought to work out their family dynamics and faith struggles while battling the Grants and trying to live out their minority faith as they move into increasingly public roles. It was an open question, particularly this season, what influences would hold sway in the family and whether or not the Hendricksons would survive both their internal conflicts and the external pressures that threatened them.
The story line about the battle for control in the polygamous sect and its resources reminded me of every church power struggle I've ever witnessed in that various factions claim divine blessing for themselves and divine judgment for their opponents. As Nicki slowly emerged from the sect's influence, viewers saw how deeply entrenched she was in its values and how damaged she was by them. After many years of marriage, Bill and Barb seemed to retreat into the religious heritage with which they were raised to a degree that nearly undid them, while Margene authentically embraced faith for the first time. In the end, these tensions were resolved and the family forged its own original path. That is a familiar narrative, not only on the TV screen but in American life.
Commenting on a scene from the final episode in which protagonist Bill Hendrickson comes to grips with the changes his family is going through, Olsen told the Times the character was saying, "Religion is not there to dictate the form of a family. Religion is not there to cram our emotions into. It's just the other way around. I just had this profound vision of eternal loving family, and anything that's inconsistent with that is bad. That's where religion ought to come from. Not the other way around."
Before we condemn the uncomfortable view that faith should emerge from family rather than family values emerging from faith, we should note that this perspective is consistent with Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell's findings in American Grace, about how Americans' doctrinal commitments are weakening due to relationships with those who are outside the bounds of those commitments. Who among us doesn't wrestle with the problem of how to live in loving tension with family members whose convictions are at odds with our own?
I had many points of disagreement with the message of Big Love, including the portrayal of assisted suicide as a loving alternative in the final episode and the strong patriarchal thrust that endured to the final scene. But apart from the much derided fourth season that crammed parrot smuggling and forced embryo implantation into the plot, I always felt like Big Love was an allegory about people I know.
As such, it succeeded as a work of art. I'm reticent, at this point, to think its creators had an ulterior motive unrelated to good storytelling. Art and propaganda are at odds with one another, and if indeed Big Love was more the latter than the former, I'm sorely disappointed. Either the series succeeded as art in spite of its creators' motives, or their view of faith and family is indeed broader than their own narrow prejudices. The humanity that infused the characters leaves me with the impression that great writing was married with skillful acting to make a memorable series about living out a difficult faith in modern times. What's not to love about that?
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingCompany that Trademarked ‘Worship Leader’ Makes Others Drop the TermPopular meme accounts lose social media pages after being reported by Authentic Media, which says it coined the phrase.
- From the MagazineJohn 3:16: So Loved, So FamiliarWe need fresh eyes for our faith’s basic teachings, no matter how long we’ve studied the Bible.简体中文繁體中文
- RelatedThe Bible’s Marriage Metaphor Doesn’t Belong In the BedroomWe can rightly look to God as husband and God as Father without making male sexuality divine.Português简体中文繁體中文
- Editor's PickPresbyterian School Mourns 6 Dead in Nashville ShootingVictims include the head of school and the 9-year-old daughter of the church’s lead pastor.