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Big Eeeewww!

Family Home Box Office Evening
Fred Harper

The Bird likes nothing better than watching what Hollywood does with real-life catastrophes and miscreants.

Whether it's softly lighted and eyelinered queer cowboys (Brokeback Mountain, my feathered ass!) or desert island plane crashes peopled by a bevy of sexy supermodel survivors (this taloned scribbler isn't too proud to admit that it perches before ABC's Lost every Wednesday night), Tinseltown producers like to pretty things up.

No matter how dire the subject matter.

There are exceptions, of course, like the guys who made the movie Monster starring Charlize Theron. And HBO.

It was HBO that made us love mean, ugly mobsters in The Sopranos and deeply flawed morticians in Six Feet Under. And, come on, if the Western drama Deadwood got any more realistic, this foul fowl would puke up its Sunday night popcorn. (Did you happen to catch the one where the doctor's digging around in character Al Swearengen's private part to remove a kidney stone?)

But now comes the heralded pay-cable network's latest attempt at turning gnarly real-life situations into TV drama -- Big Love (which debuts March 12).

The Bird couldn't wait to see what co-creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer would do with this subject matter! That is, how they would wring entertainment out of a practice that most everybody in Arizona knows a whole lot about and isn't proud of.

What this feathered fiend is talking about is polygamy. Yeah, the show's about the religious practice where a man's not only got to bring home the bacon for a passel of wives and a herd of kids, but who often has committed pedophilia in the process with his underage "spiritual" brides.

If you've read New Times' "Polygamy in Arizona" series by John Dougherty, you know about the abuses of polygamy in the northern Arizona and southern Utah towns of Colorado City and Hildale. You know there are all kinds of shocking stories about this real-life cult.

Thing is, from any of the big-three public networks, The Bird would've expected sanitized scripting on even this subject -- you know, a catchy theme song (maybe "Seven Brides for One Brother"), possibly a cameo appearance by Jessica Simpson. But from HBO, it anticipated gritty fare on the perverted practice that enslaves women and should reduce men to forced registration as sex offenders.

It thought wrong. The advance screener the show's producers were kind enough to send The Bird, along with an endless string of promotional spots for the show, are about as down and dirty as the old sitcom Three's Company.

Originally scheduled to première last August, Big Love focuses on Utah polygamist Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton), who lives with his wives Barb, Nicki, and Margene (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin) in three separate houses on the same hunk of suburban crabgrass.

Just as in any old rerun of said Three's Company, Bill and the babes have to keep the nature of their arrangement semi-secret because polygamy's illegal in Utah and banned by the mainstream Mormon Church.

According to Olsen, the Big Love characters aren't necessarily Mormons, but an "unspecified offshoot." Yeah, right.

The stories concern how Bill, who owns a chain of home-improvement stores, swings the whole three-wives-are-better-than-one thing. There's even a facts-of-life scene where father tells son that polygamy's "not for everybody."

The Bird can't wait to find out if this guy's spouses have to take a number and get in line for sex. Did this third middle finger let on already that Bill pops Viagra so he can keep everybody satisfied?

Talk about desperate housewives!

If its pilot episode is any indication, Big Love-style polygamy is just as tidy as a deodorant commercial -- a fact Olsen doesn't deny.

"I don't think we made everything too pretty," Olsen told The Bird. "Big Love shows challenges that every family faces, just times three. After a while, you stop seeing polygamists and start seeing human faces."

Cute explanation.

Except those "human faces" are a whole lot prettier than their real-life counterparts. This pugilistic pigeon is here to tell you that the actors hired to play Big Love's wives and wife-collectors bear little resemblance to the inbred, Little House on the Prairie-dressing frumps along the Arizona-Utah border.

The Bird's new friend Pennie Petersen agrees -- and she ought to know. Pennie was born and raised in the Colorado City-Hildale polygamy cult, but busted out at age 14 after church elders told her she had to marry a 48-year-old guy who already had four wives.

Petersen promised that the polygamy peeps she knew had neither hair and makeup crews nor Chloë Sevigny's bone structure.

"After a while, polygamy wives get a hardened look, like a zombie," Petersen informed The Bird. "There's so much abuse that you're just walking around like an empty shell, with nothing behind your eyes."

 

She's saying, there are no hot-soccer-mom types like Jeanne Tripplehorn plays in the program.

Petersen says Chloë, Jeanne and company's small-screen problems don't come close to the real issues faced by dames whose husbands have multiple spouses.

There's the competition among women for their man's attention, she says, and the competition among kids for dad's attention. And many times there's the competition not to be the object of his attention.

"Polygamy's abuse and depression," she opined. "Huge depression. It's hard to glamorize that. They should call the show Not Enough Love."

Or, when you think about a 14-year-old girl marrying a 60-year-old man: Big Eeeewww!

Petersen laughed when The Bird told her that maybe HBO should market its new show as a comedy rather than a drama.

"Everything in that show looks so rosy," she snarked, after watching clips from the pilot. "But believe me, polygamy doesn't work. In real life you've got the first wife, who is old and worn out and mad about the second wife, and then all of a sudden there's a third wife, a young one, and that causes all kinds of chaos because, of course, the guy is flipped over her -- she's young and skinny because she hasn't given birth to 12 kids -- and so the women hate her. Which leads to her getting all the hard chores of the house and watching the kids, plus she's dealing with women hating her, and the man wanting to be with her all the time.

"Being the third or fourth wife just sucks."

The show's creators got that part right, at least.

In the pilot, Bill's eldest wife gets even with his new, perky teenage bride by grounding her.

Some of the men in the real polygamist enclave have scores of wives, so imagine the child-care responsibilities of wife 60!

Realism aside, Big Love is hardly G-rated. Although the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doesn't make an appearance on the show, it does contain loads of sex and some behind-the-scenes Mormon stuff -- like a secret chant about moral purity that goes: "We can wait!/We can wait!/We can wait to procreate/'Til aaaaaaaaaaafter marriage! Yaaaaay!"

The Bird wishes it were kidding.

"Polygamy was a trip," Petersen scoffed. "But not a fun one. I don't know how they can portray it accurately and still make it entertaining, though. Unless they portray the women as dogs, it's not accurate. Who have [the writers] been talking to, anyhow?"

Big Love executive producer Tom Hanks, for one. Hanks was himself a Mormon for a couple of years when he was a kid, and has arranged to have each episode open with a disclaimer stating that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't sanction plural marriage -- a move that Olsen told The Bird was made without any prompting from the church.

Mainstream Mormon officials beg to differ. They say on their Web site (www.lds.org) that the church instigated placement of the disclaimer "dissociating the practice of polygamy today from the Church."

They go on to say that "it will be regrettable if this program, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimizes the seriousness of the problems [of polygamy]."

Don't get The Bird wrong. It's not scandalized that HBO's airing a series on polygamy. Great idea! And it's probably best to feature good-looking actors. 'Cause, honey, nobody wants to see puffy girls with a lot of body hair and no makeup boning Bill Paxton.

The winged wonder just wishes that the creators of Big Love would plan some edgier episodes.

Maybe one on the church's prophet getting busted for marrying church members to underage brides, going on the lam and winding up on the FBI's most wanted list. Or one where the prophet is accused of having repeatedly raped a young nephew years ago. There could even be a flashback scene to Paxton's character being the one victimized. These are actual events in the life of church Prophet Warren Jeffs, who real polygamists believe is a God-like character sent to direct their every move on Earth.

The Bird was heartened to see in one of the trailers that venerable actor Harry Dean Stanton plays a money-grubbing, sleazoid church prophet in the HBO show.

"Hey, polygamy's a hot issue right now," Petersen proclaimed. "The only reason [a TV network] is doing a show about it is because it will make some money. I tell you, if there were money in rescuing girls from Colorado City, the Hollywood guys would be lining up to get those girls out right now."

 

Now, Pennie, Hollywood wouldn't give a good Jeffs-damn about getting the poor girls freed . . .

Unless it could somehow dramatize their release from captivity. Who knows, maybe Olsen and Scheffer will seize on the idea for an episode of Big Love after reading this column, like somebody did after reading all the polygamy coverage in the national press that was sparked by New Times.


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