There is some real irony in this week’s apology from HBO regarding their anticipated controversial portrayal of a Mormon temple’s “sacred endowment ceremony” in the amazingly entertaining and insightful Sunday night soap opera Big Love. The show, which features a Utah polygamous family dealing with the challenges if interacting with both the secular world and with their fundamentalist roots, is genuinely known for portraying conservative religious beliefs quite sympathetically. Some would even say that it is (arguably) “one of the most sympathetic portraits” of such beliefs.
I watched the occasional episode during the first two seasons, but for one reason or another became hooked starting with this season. As the season winds down, the plot is hurtling towards a collision between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the polygamous family’s fundamentalist faith that maintains that multiple wives continue to be a mandatory element of achieving one’s exaltation and is consistent with the original teachings of Joseph Smith. The Mormons portrayed on the show object.
The fact that the collision occurred over the portrayal of a Mormon temple ceremony, which is considered sacred, and secret, shouldn’t be too surprising, but I’m amazed it didn’t happen sooner because the show is not afraid of wrestling with some very difficult hot-button social issues like teen pregnancy and family relationships. (Thanks to the Arts Admin. blog for first bringing this to my attention.) Here is the Associated Press:
SALT LAKE CITY — HBO on Tuesday defended its plans to depict a sacred Mormon temple ceremony in an upcoming episode of “Big Love.”
The drama about a Utah polygamous family will show an endowment ceremony in the episode airing Sunday.
HBO said it did not intend to be disrespectful of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and apologized.
“Obviously, it was not our intention to do anything disrespectful to the church, but to those who may be offended, we offer our sincere apology,” the cable television channel said in a statement issued Tuesday.
But the ceremony is an important part of the “Big Love” story line, HBO said.
The AP’s coverage seems spot on to me, noting that HBO and the Church negotiated an agreement whereby HBO would disclaim in the show’s credits the fact that the beliefs portrayed on the show were distinguishable from the Church’s modern position on polygamy. The current dispute appears to be not merely over the ceremony scene, but also includes other instances that seem to blur “the distinction between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the show’s fictional non-Mormon characters and their practices.” From my perspective, the distinction is made quite clear, at least once one gets the general gist of the show.
The fact that overall the show tends to be very respectful towards a group of people who maintain a rather obscure and minority faith isn’t reflected in the AP story, but that’s a detail that’s probably best left for the commentators and columnists. The article points out that the show employs advisers to vet the show for accuracy, and to my knowledge the show portrays the faiths fairly accurately.
The rest of the entertainment industry should take a serious look at how Big Love pulls it off. The show doesn’t play on stereotypes and portrays the individuals’ faith as genuine and meaningful even if most Americans do not relate to that particular faith and its practices.