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Doug Hyun, HBO
Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin and Chloe Sevigny, rear, star in "Big Love" on HBO.

PASADENA, Calif. — HBO is going to give its subscribers a new series about polygamists living in suburban Salt Lake City — sort of a plural-marriage answer to "The Sopranos."

These polygamists are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a fact the series makes pretty clear. But is it clear enough?

HBO and the producers certainly think so.

"I think what the show does very clearly is it makes a very big distinction between the mainline church and the characters in the show," said Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. "It is interesting how many people are ignorant about the Mormon Church and think that (it) actually does condone polygamy.

"So, in an odd way, this show is sort of beneficial in drawing that distinction."

"Big Love," which premieres in March, revolves around a businessman (Bill Paxton), his three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) and their seven children, who all live in three adjacent houses in Sandy.

Shot mostly in California, some filming was done in Utah, and a lot of local sites — including the Salt Lake LDS Temple — are clearly visible.

Although the fictional family has familial ties to a polygamist clan and its evil leader, they've left that behind and are sort of independent polygamists.

The producers made a point of separating Mormons from those polygamists.

"People do have this misconception. There is a blurring of Mormons and polygamy in the same breath," said executive producer Mark V. Olsen. "I want (viewers) to get it. That is important to us."

LDS Church officials are aware of the HBO project and somewhat concerned.

"We know a little bit about it," said church spokesman Dale Bills, who declined further comment beyond an official statement about "Big Love" in the newsroom/comments section of the lds.org Web site:

"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 whatever with The 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 that problem.

"Through its Los Angeles public affairs office, church representatives have asked the producers at HBO to consider a disclaimer at the beginning of the program, dissociating the practice of polygamy today from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The producers have said they are willing to consider that request."

In fact, a disclaimer will run at the end of each episode stating that the LDS Church does not condone polygamy.

Having asked a dozen or so TV critics who've seen at least some of the first five episodes, most agreed that it's a clear distinction. One, however, was surprised to learn mainstream Mormons aren't polygamists — and he'd seen all five episodes.

The producers also took great pains to make it clear that "Big Love" is not anti-Mormon.

"When we brought this project to HBO, there were two caveats that we had. . . . We were not interested in the glib, the sensational, the tawdry, the salacious. Our interests went much deeper than that," Olsen said. "And we also wanted to communicate to HBO (that) we had no ax to grind against the Mormon Church. And those remain our guiding principles in this material."

While the central family in "Big Love" seems relatively normal — almost average — the darker side of polygamy is also portrayed. Wife No. 2's father (Harry Dean Stanton), the leader of a polygamist cult, has a teenage bride. And the producers promise that storyline will be played out.

"It is very important to us to take responsibility and, in our dramatization of this family, also dramatize some of the groups that exist," said executive producer Will Scheffer. "I think that we are going to show a wide variety of polygamous behavior. And, certainly, some of it is not going to be shown in a good light."

"We do feel very much the responsibility not to give short shrift to the abuses of polygamy," Olsen said.

While he has no Mormon background, Olsen has done enormous research and has a firm grasp of the culture. It's not just that the scripts are sprinkled with LDS references, but they're in context. And he speaks easily and knowledgeably about various polygamous groups ranging from Bluffdale to Colorado City.

He knows enough that he edited out a scene in a later episode that featured temple garments being treated disrespectfully.

"I just couldn't leave it in. We really don't want to offend members" of the LDS Church, he said.

But he's not going to be surprised if they are. And, make no mistake, this is an HBO show that's far from family fare. Olsen expects church members to be offended by the sex scenes, which are HBO-explicit. But, clearly, they're not aiming for an LDS audience.

"If, at the end of the day, there is at least a recognition that we have attempted to be fair and transparent in our handling of this material, that is all we could ask out of the mainstream church," Olsen said.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com