Everyone from practicing polygamists to the Mormon church — which shunned the practice more than a century ago — are anxiously anticipating the fallout from the show about a Utah polygamist and his three sometimes desperate housewives.
Some worry that the series will perpetuate stereotypes from which the state and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long sought to distance themselves. Others fear it will diminish the crimes, such as child abuse, reported in some of the state's secretive polygamous sects. And polygamists say they're sure the series won't accurately portray the "boring" reality of their lives.
The program debuts 10 p.m. EST Sunday after the season premiere of "The Sopranos," which spawned bus tours of the show's locations in New Jersey and backlash from some Italian-American groups.
Public perceptions are a concern of the LDS church, which claims 12 million members worldwide.
In 1843, church founder Joseph Smith said he had a revelation from God allowing the practice of plural marriage. In 1890, a subsequent church president, Wilford Woodruff, made public a revelation declaring that church members should stop practicing polygamy. The federal government had required the Utah territory end its endorsement of polygamy as a condition of statehood. Utah became a state in 1896.
Polygamy isn't an issue for modern-day Mormons, said church spokesman Michael Otterson, adding that members understand why polygamy is no longer practiced.
What concerns the church is anything that might make light of the abuse of women and children alleged to occur in some polygamist communities.
"To make polygamy, given those circumstances, the subject of television entertainment is not only a bad idea, but it's going to add to the pain of those victims," Otterson said.
He's also worried that the church could lose some of the ground it has gained in educating the public about the differences between the mainstream church and splinter fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy.
"This, I think, is going to undo some of that. Because you only have to mention Salt Lake City and polygamy and Mormons in the same breath and people will start to get those old stereotypes again," he said.
Otterson said HBO has "gone out of their way to call journalists who got it wrong." But an epilogue statement, which is scheduled to air after the first episode, is inadequate, he said.
The statement says: "According to a joint report issued by the Utah and Arizona attorney general's offices, July 2005, `approximately 20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States.' The Mormon church officially banned the practice of polygamy in 1890."
HBO has said they feel the epilogue will help clear up any confusion and the show's creators say their program will reinforce the difference.
"We want to make it abundantly clear that our characters are not Mormon, that they wouldn't find any home in the Mormon church. And that works for the dramatic pull of the show," co-creator Mark V. Olsen told The Associated Press.
Olsen also said the show's depiction of a rural polygamist sect addresses the issue of child abuse.
"There is no way we want to whitewash the abuses. That's very important to us. Stick with us in our story lines. This is a concern that we are responsive to," he said.
The "Big Love" lead character Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton) runs a home improvement store in Salt Lake City and is just opening another. Besides the struggles of his expanding business, Henrickson faces the challenges of life with three women (Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloe Sevigny and Jeanne Tripplehorn) and seven children, and the nefarious "prophet" (Harry Dean Stanton) from a rural sect in fictional Juniper Creek who wants his share of Henrickson's success.
Vicky Prunty, director of the anti-polygamy group Tapestry Against Polygamy, said she's happy the show is addressing the abuse issue, but, based on script she's read, it doesn't go far enough.
"The abuse is not in just the isolated areas," she said. "(Polygamy) deals with power and control. Those individuals feel coerced into it, even if it's a subtle coercion, a religious coercion."
Prunty said even though the church tries to separate itself from the polygamy issue, the majority of practicing polygamists, including her ex-husband with whom she was in a multiple marriage, trace their beliefs to Mormon doctrine. Prunty's group has asked the Mormon church to get more involved in the issue.
Otterson said the role of the church is not to involve itself in allegations of criminal behavior.
"All we can do is raise our moral voice," he said. "The church will always be reluctant to step into an area that is the preserve of government."
Anne Wilde, the community relations director for the pro-polygamy group Principal Voices, said she's worried too.
"I don't want it to represent our culture in a bad way," she said.
Wilde was in a plural marriage for more than 33 years, until her husband died about three years ago. She doubts the realities of most modern-day polygamists would interest TV viewers.
"I would like people to realize it's very similar to a monogamous family," Wilde said.
By Debbie Hummel