God Only Knows: A Conversation with the Creators of Big Love

MikeInWeHo is an old friend of BCC.

Last Sunday at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles a panel convened to discuss the HBO series Big Love. Sponsored by Outfest, the event promised an inside look at how a drama about polygamy made its way to television.

The series was created and written by long-time couple Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, who answered the friendly audience’s questions with candor. Three cast members were also present, including Matt Ross (‘Alby Grant’) and Mary Kay Place (‘Adaleen Grant’). Clips were shown giving a synopsis of last season.

While the highly controversial temple scene was not shown again, the audience asked Olsen and Scheffer several questions about that episode:

Why did HBO permit something so offensive to Mormons? Scheffer answered with a laugh that the executives at HBO knew nothing about Mormonism and had no idea the temple scene would set off a “firestorm.” He stated “HBO didn’t know that, and we didn’t tell them.” He went on to report that the controversy eventually died down and in fact HBO’s ratings “go through the roof in Utah” when Big Love is on the air. They have experience no negative repercussions from HBO and report that many felt the scene was beautiful and respectful.

Was the endowment scene their response to the Church’s involvement in Prop 8? They insisted there was no connection, and that in fact the scene was “shot and in the can months before Prop 8.” They went further and said “This was not payback,” but continued: “Next season will be payback.”

The audience asked for more detail, but the couple demurred. They did reveal that new characters would be introduced, including a gay Mormon who is attempting to live according to the teachings of the Church. They implied that this new character would embark on a clandestine sexual relationship with Alby Grant, and that the experiences of gay Mormons in Utah would become part of the storyline.

Other questions were asked about their overall motivation for creating Big Love. Is it really about something besides polygamy? How can this family be portrayed so sympathetically, when contemporary polygamy is so oppressive to women? What’s really going on here?

Olsen and Scheffer acknowledged that they do have a political agenda, to promote acceptance of diverse forms of family. In the context of Outfest, it was clear that by this they meant gay marriage. They discussed how “the last thing we need is a polemic” and that the best way to win over public opinion is by “portraying humanity.” They concluded the discussion by pointing out that “At the end of the day, this is a family that works.”

It will be interesting to see what’s in store for the Henrickson family next season.

Comments

  1. “Next season will be payback.”

    Juicy!

    Thanks for the writeup, Mike. I’m looking forward to next season.

  2. Emily U says:

    “They concluded the discussion by pointing out that “At the end of the day, this is a family that works.””

    Hmmm. I’d seriously disagree with the idea that the Henrickson’s family “works.” If it worked so well, it wouldn’t be so entertaining to watch!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Mike. As I’ve said before, I think the political edge behind this show is rather brilliant. Not many people would realize that showing a polygamous family sympathetically could open hearts to other alternative marriage arrangments (i.e., gay marriage), but I think it does have that tendency. I give the creators a lot of credit for realizing that; it’s not a no-brainer proposition.

  4. jjohnsen says:

    “He went on to report that the controversy eventually died down and in fact HBO’s ratings “go through the roof in Utah” when Big Love is on the air.”

    As usual, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. All the people sending out emails and posting on Facebook about how everyone should boycott Big Love only helped HBO and the creators of the show. You’d think at some point people would learn.

    I’m looking forward to next season.

  5. re: 3
    Olsen and Scheffer came across as extraordinarily bright and articulate. I should have stayed around and chatted with them afterward, but I was more interested in getting my picture taken with Mary Kay Place. She’s a brilliant actress and funny to boot. How can you not love her as Adaleen Grant?

    Here’s another interview with Olsen and Scheffer where they speak about the genesis of Big Love:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/06/10/PKG3EQ4RTA1.DTL&feed=rss.entertainment

  6. Mike, this is a great write-up. I am even more glad than ever than I have never seen even a second of this show.

  7. But, Geoff, you’d LOVE it.

  8. “Next season will be payback.”

    Lovely. Just what we enjoy — people with both media muscle and antagonism toward Mormonism.

  9. Aaron Brown says:

    At the end of the day, HBO costs more moolah than I’m willing to pay, what with 4700 other free channels on my TV that I don’t watch, so the question whether to watch Big Love doesn’t really arise.

    AB

  10. Your cable or satellite company probably has a promo where they’ll give you HBO for free (or almost free) for the first six months. That’s how they get you hooked. Like meth.

  11. I will say it is ironic that the show does so well in Utah. Attention all Mormons: the best way to kill this horrible show is not to watch it. Thank you. That is all.

  12. “This was not payback,” but continued: “Next season will be payback.”

    Yawn. . .Whatever.

  13. Latter-day Guy says:

    Re: 11, “Attention all Mormons: the best way to kill this horrible show is not to watch it.”

    However, I still feel that I am doing my duty, even if I watch the show, as long as I only do so only by viewing pirated versions over the internet.

  14. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote:

    “The only thing worse than being talked about is…not being talked about.”

  15. So, most likely, the gay mormon will commit suicide. And it will be the church’s fault. I say this not to make light of the plight of gay folk in the church, but to express my irritation regarding the hoary tropes of Hollywood, the easy answers and explanations of such, and my continuing surprise that black and white morality is a two-way street. Let us never forget that there is no issue too serious and painful that people can’t make it trite and moralistic for someone’s entertainment.

  16. “the best way to win over public opinion is by “portraying humanity.”
    I liked this line, and I agree with it in the sense that aggression doesn’t win anyone over.

    John C – I can see your reasoning, we DON’T know that yet. I do agree that often very difficult and complex issues are portrayed too simply. However, sometimes they are portrayed very well, and NOT just for entertainment, like Brokeback Mountain, for example. I didn’t find that movie entertaining at all, and I don’t think that was the intention of those who made it. Rather, it was an incredible learning experience. Hopefully this new character arch in Big Love will be similar, rather than just, as you said, “trite and moralistic.”

  17. For the record, I’ve only seen a few episodes of Big Love, but thought they were ok. I DO NOT see how that family is “working” and perhaps they cover it in later episodes but I am interested in how they address the extremely insecure attachments that must exists between the husband and the wives.

  18. Stephanie says:

    Sounds like a bunch of good reasons to continue not watching the show.

  19. jjohnsen says:

    “the easy answers and explanations of such, and my continuing surprise that black and white morality is a two-way street. ”
    That doesn’t really describe Big Love, nothing ever seems to be black and white.

  20. If the closeted gay member doesn’t commit suicide, I shall eat my hat. I shall also make sure it is made of cake.

  21. re: 19 – 20
    Time will tell. Jjohnsen is correct: Up to this point Big Love has presented a world that is far from black-and-white. On the contrary. It’s very nuanced. That’s what makes it so interesting.

  22. John C that was funny. The actual data of course refutes the claim that appears to be made from whole cloth that suicides are high in Utah because of SSA issues and Mormon culture. I think it was John Mansfield that actually did the research and debunked the whole thing.

    Also I really enjoyed your last post about expectations. It was a really good one. Sorry it got hijacked by numbskulls.

  23. MikeinWeHo,
    Is it really nuanced when it comes to the institutional church? I’ve yet to hear any evidence to the contrary and would happily surprised to find some.

  24. bbell,
    not my post

  25. Justmeherenow says:

    Next season’s script arc writes itself, doesn’t it.

  26. John C: If the closeted gay member doesn’t commit suicide, I shall eat my hat.

    I love the fearless prediction. Let’s see if the writers can think of something — anything — that isn’t that hackneyed and predictable.

  27. Jason L. says:

    Yeah, bbell, thank goodness the statistics are so comforting–as long it’s only a few gay Mormon teens who commit suicide, not enough to make Utah’s statistics look bad, we definitely wouldn’t want to be overly concerned.

  28. Jason L.,
    Let’s read bbell a little more charitably, shall we? I am suddenly in a forgiving mood.

  29. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Realistic Gay Mormon Character Options:

    1. The midlife male who after years of marriage to a member wife AND after fathering several children decided he was gay and divorced. (Not enough dramatic potential/boring)

    2. The RM who gives his homecoming talk then embarks on a new out life, leaving the church behind. (Not controversial enough)

    3. The musician/thespian who is not out, but is single and has effeminate qualities. (has potential…faces fallout from the artistic community after prop 8 about his Mormon-ness)

    4. The eternal bachelor who is one of the older members of his singles ward. Dates, but never puts out. Prefers to double date. Older women in the church just can’t figure out why he has not yet married. (Too straight-laced for Big Love/needs spicy dangerous liasons)

    5. The gay GA. Ultrasecretive encounters with conflicting feelings about who he is internally versus the facade he shows externally. (OK…so its not realistic, but is tabloid quality material; also, someone the age of the Golden Girls doing love scenes like they have in Big Love would be Big Ugh.

  30. I tried watching an episode of Big Love. It was boring.

  31. Mark N. says:

    #10 – “That’s how they get you hooked. Like meth.”

    And then, you get hooked on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”.

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