Big Love Hits and Misses

I started out watching Big Love out of sheer morbid curiousity, coupled with the fact that I was watching The Sopranos anyway. I didn’t think it was very entertaining at first, and I figured I’d check it out for two or three weeks and then move back to Gray’s Anatomy.

But the show is getting more entertaining as the characters develop. It is still no Six Feet Under, but it has potential. So I’ll probably keep watching for now.

I’ve been interested to see how the show handles its occasional forays into mainstream Mormon culture. I was expecting to see lots of things that didn’t ring true, and there indeed have been some clunkers. The one that comes to mind is when Bill asks first wife Barb whether she wants him to “lay a blessing on you.” That one clanged off the back of the rim. Unless that is some sort of fundamentalist patter, the normative expressions would be to “give you a blessing.”

But I’ve been surprised by a string of “hits,” language or conversations that seem plausible for the religious culture. Obviously someone has done some homework on this, they’re not just rolling the ball out to a group of Hollywood writers. Here are some hits that I’ve noticed:

1. In an early episode, a group of teenage girls is talking at a fast food restaurant, and one of them asserts that she’s no “Morgbot.”

2. Here’s a really subtle one, and my personal favorite. In the show a week ago Sunday, the oldest daughter in the family wants to go to a typical high school “party,” with drinking and sex. The good Mormon girl, played by the girl who was in Napoleon Dynamite, wants to go to The Spaghetti Factory in Trolley Square. On the surface, there’s nothing distinctly Mormon about that. But it rings true to me. I was first introduced to the Spaghetti Factory by my very Mormon Utah cousins. It is in a fun and interesting setting, but since it is spaghetti, after all, the prices are very reasonable. (And my vegetarian daughter loves the “Homer,” as do I.) While I, the pioneer descended fifth-generation Mormon, love the Spaghetti Factory, my convert spouse does not. She would rather go to Tony Roma’s. So I thought this scene was a very impressive, subtle pick up of the possible resonance of The Spaghetti Factory in LDS culture.

3. Last Sunday’s episode had several hits. First, Bill’s polygamist colleague at the store casually mentions the Polygamy Primer. This is a resource written jointly by the Attorneys General of the States of Utah and Arizona. (It is really well done, BTW, and I suspect it was an important resource for the producers as they planned the show.) While most mainstream Mormons may not be familiar with it, I am sure that a suburban polygamist would be.

4. The oldest son in the family thinks about sex all the time, as teenage boys (or should I just say “men”?) are wont to do. He thinks there is something spiritually wrong with him, so he wants to go to seminary. His girlfriend tries to talk him out of it; she doesn’t want him to become like the other Mormon boys she has dated (not her words, but self-righteous prigs). I can well imagine a girl making such a speech. And I can also imagine a boy who had an early LDS background, but is now in a polygamous family, actually wanting to attend seminary, even if a lot of the LDS kids try to avoid it.

5. After Bill and Barb meet another couple, Barb laughs at how the other man’s wife was trying really hard to check out her garment lines. That struck me as very realistic.

In fact, it reminds me of a story. When I was a teenager, a guy who was in his 20s and new to our ward (in Illinois) was asked to speak in sacrament. He talked about how before he joined the church, or maybe it was shortly after, he had attended BYU (or maybe it was some other Utah college). He quickly learned that he couldn’t get any traction with the local girls unless they thought he was an RM. So he found a place that sold scoop necked t-shirts, and before he went on a date he would put rubber bands on his thighs just above his knees. During the date, the girl invariably would caress his lower thigh, surreptitiously looking for the telltale garment line. Why he was telling these stories in a sacrament meeting talk, I don’t know, and I’m sure the adults were aghast, but we boys were taking notes, I assure you.

Have you been watching the show? What hits or misses have you noticed in how it deals with LDS religious culture?


  1. I laughed out loud at Sunday’s episode when Bill and his polygamist co-worker called in an anonymous tip against Roman to the Utah Attorney General’s office for the “Polygamy Czar”. I know Utah used to have a Porn Czar (possibly still does) and the wording just cracks me up. Also the fact that the taxpayers foot the bill for someone to sit and watch porn. Ah, Utah culture.

    I love Big Love. The true blue Mormon friend of the Polygamist daughter is written realistically and likable and Nicki is a riot.

  2. Thanks for the post — my wife and I don’t have HBO, and we’ve been curious about whether Big Love is any good. (We live in that twilight zone of American culture where we watch the HBO shows one year later on DVD. On the strength of your post, I suppose I’ll put Big Love in our Netflix queue now, in anticipation of the time in 2007 when we can actually watch it!

  3. MikeInWeHo says:

    I was struck by the teen party where they all drank cough syrup to get drunk. Does that really occur in Utah? Is it that hard for a group of sinning high school students to get a keg?

    People without HBO can get some details here:

    The creators of this show (Will Scheffer and Mark V Olsen) are a gay couple, and with names like that I’m sure there’s a Mormon background somewhere.

  4. The whole “garment checking” thing always surprises me because it simply never occurs to me to be on the lookout for whether a person is wearing garments or not.

    If I’m wondering whether a person is LDS or not, I find myself simply listening to what they say. It doesn’t usually take long for an LDS person to give him or herself away by the topics they end up talking about.

  5. Oh and thanks for the review and insights into the show. No HBO in this house … but I have been curious.

  6. S.P. Bailey says:

    No. 4: garments reveal not only ethnos, but orthodoxy as well.

  7. Thanks for the review. I plan on watching it on DVD when they start the second season.

  8. Space Chick says:

    How about we refer to these behaviors as Wahsatch Front culture, instead of LDS religious culture? Because I can assure you that most of us outside Utah, Arizona and Idaho don’t care for the Spaghetti Factory, in fact probably don’t have one nearby, and certainly don’t spend our time checking for garment lines. Not to be bad-tempered about it, but these foibles are not generic to all church members!

  9. while at byu i do remember some friends from springville and other places along the wasatch front talking about how people would get high off of cough syrup at parties. i think it was because the WoW doesn’t say anything about cough syrup (yeah, i know, pretty silly). so yes, it was a nice reference in the show.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Point taken, Space Chick, I’m including Utah or Wasatch Front culture in this.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    The opening credit sequence is interesting, too. After the ice cracks and Bill and his wives are separated, he seems to find them again through what look like veils. And then they end up eating dinner together on their own planet. There is a theological underpinning to that scene that only someone familiar with Mormonism would appreciate.

  12. Kevin, your # 11 comment was one that I was going to mention. Not are they eating on their own planet, they are doing so in a solar system of planets.

    The gal who is Benny’s girlfriend also mentioned that if he went to seminary he would be just like other Mormon boys in the “priesthood”, or something to that effect. She also implied he would be brainwashed to think his body was dirty, and that she didn’t want him to be like that. (Though the Church does not in anyway teach anything like that.) The other one from last week was when Benny did go Seminary the first time, he teacher commented to him that he had “Chosen the Right.” There are fascinating little LDS’isms impling to me that someone very familiar with Mormon culture (as it exists on the Wasatch Front) is feeding them this stuff.

    Like you, I’m fascinated by how the show is progressing. I thought of the same stories I’d heard at BYU about garment lines when Barb mentioned that one.

    One that didn’t quite hit with me was when Bill and Benny were out hunting and discussing revelation. Bill said something about receiving “testimony.” I’ve not heard that term before or that phrase. I think its’ been mentioned a few other times on the show as well in that context.

  13. I love “Big Love”. I think the show is brilliant. I know that there are a lot of things that are kind of off (like what was already mentioned), but for the most part, I think they have done a pretty good job.

    Above all else it is interesting because even though I am Mormon and grew up in Utah I have no idea about Polygamist culture and lifestyle.

  14. D. Fletcher says:

    Something quite annoying to me about the show. Yes, the references are there, to garments and seminary.

    But the family is independent of organized religion! They don’t belong to a congregation, and they seem to have no religious activities at all.

    It doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t make sense that anyone would live such an unusual lifestyle without the motivation of a very serious religious community.

  15. D. Fletcher,

    Bill (the main character) was raised on the polygamist compound with all the religious teachings that went along with it. He was thrown out as a young man, just like the “Lost Boys” in Hildale and Colorado City that are kicked out of the group, so the older men can get all the young brides. I guess Bill still believes in the teachings he was raised with, but doesn’t have an organized church he can attend, now that he doesn’t live at the compound.

  16. D. Fletcher says:

    Yeah, I got that.

    I still think that the thing very missing from the show is religion, talk of God, reading scriptures, bearing testimony, and praying, real praying.

    But it is true that plenty of young men are ostracized from their polygamist communities, precisely because there aren’t enough women to go around.

  17. MikeInWeHo says:

    Well, they do pray at least once per episode. And keep in mind that this is not intended for an LDS audience, so doctrinal discussions might not work. There was a scene where the prophet of the polygamist sect explains the BoM story and Joseph Smith to some reporters. And really, who knows how often polygamists bear their testimony. Polygamist bloggers: Can you shed some light on this? : )

  18. I think it’s silly to insinuate that the quirks of Mormon culture are limited to the Wasatch Front. I’ve lived in Utah, England, New York and Florida and the church is uncannily the same wherever you go. Really, those who want to think otherwise have the burden of proof, and I’ve never seen sufficient evidence to convict.

  19. re: #3, I have unfortunately had a friend try to get drunk from drinking mouthwash. Bright blue vomit is not something I’d care to see again. =(

    Also, I’d like to affirm that I’ve at least heard the “garment touching” rumor at a young adult conference in FL. I don’t believe I experienced it, though.

  20. Stan Shepp says:

    Comment by D. Fletcher — April 11, 2006 @ 1:35 pm

    > But it is true that plenty of young men are ostracized
    > from their polygamist communities, precisely because
    > there aren’t enough women to go around.

    As far as I know, only one Mormon Fundamentalist (Polygamous) Community casts their young men out of their communities – that is the FLDS. I would be interested in knowing what evidence or first hand knowledge you have of plenty of young men being ostracized from other polygamist communities.

    Stan Shepp
    Southern Utah
    Center of the Universe

  21. Stan Shepp says:

    Comment by Wendy — April 11, 2006 @ 12:49 pm (comment 15)

    > Bill (the main character) was raised on the polygamist
    > compound with all the religious teachings that went
    > along with it. He was thrown out as a young man, just
    > like the “Lost Boys” in Hildale and Colorado City that
    > are kicked out of the group, so the older men can get
    > all the young brides.

    The problem with that whole line is that the “Lost Boys” are a relatively new phenomenon. Warren Jeffs, the current leader of the FLDS is the one who has used that policy to thin the men from his church. Prior to his leadership (which would be the time when Bill Paxton would have been a teenager) this was never heard of. It would have been more realistic if Bill had a younger brother who was kicked out now – or within the past few years. Bill is too old to have been a “Lost Boy”.

    Also, although I disagree with the practive which produces “Lost Boys”, in their defense, I would like to say that these boys are not tossed out for the sole purpose of freeing up more young girls for the leadership. Most of them have chosen a different path – like drugs, alchohol or pornography. The desire to live this lifestyle within the religious communities and to spread those practices (including the practice of having sex with young, unmarried girls) throughout the community. They are then invited to leave, and sometimes their parents can no longer manage them and they take them to St. George and drop them off in the real world – where those practices are the norm.

    As wrong and misguided as the FLDS are, they are still trying to build up a righteous community. IMO, they really suck at it – but they are trying.

    > I guess Bill still believes in the teachings he was
    > raised with, but doesn’t have an organized church he
    > can attend, now that he doesn’t live at the compound.

    Most Mormon Fundamentalists are “Independants” or unassaciated with an organization. Many of them have come from an organized group, but broke away at some point or another. Many (men and women) are converting to Mormon Fundamentalism each week – but the idea of which group to join is a great struggle. So they become “independants”.

    It is not unusual for Mormon Fundamentalists to have “Home Church”, “Sunday School” or “Family Home Evening” at various times. Depending on the leadership of the father (often as encouraged by the mothers), the religious instruction in each Mormon Funmdamentalist home varies greatly. And just like mainstream LDS families, it varies within a home – where you try to do FHE every week and it works for a while and then dwindles out. Starting to read the scriptures together every morning, but then it dwindles out. A cycle of doing better, then doing worse, then recommitting and doing better again.

    If you are LDS, then you would know that the most widely read scripture is 1 Nephi Chapter 1. It is the first chapter in the Book of Mormon – and each time a family tries to read every day as a family, they start at the beginning.

    I hope these comments help. Feel free to Email me privately if anyone has additional comments or questions.


    Stan Shepp
    Southern Utah
    Center of the Universe

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