As a non-practicing Mormon, I am occasionally asked the following question: "What do you think of the HBO original drama Big Love?" Actually the question usually comes out like this, "So Jake, whaddyuh think of Big Love?" The question's tone almost gives the impression I've been asked to comment on a fetish, not a TV program. Generally, my response is to draw a deep breath, cast an affable grin, and not mention all of the personal thoughts and feelings the show produces in me. After all, that’s not what they asked me to discuss. They just want a thumbs up or down.
Big Love is a fictional show that follows the life of a suburban polygamous family in Utah. Mormonism, as a complex culture, is at the heart of the show. It is currently in its fourth season, includes a top-notch cast, and even boasts an Oscar-winning writer/producer. By way of pop culture context, the show has proven itself a worthy successor to The Sopranos. It is intelligent and has high production values. But I'm not writing this post to muse on Big Love as entertainment. It's the show's personal effect on me that I've been musing on, having just viewed Season Three on DVD.
I was born and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the main body of believers who trace their religious heritage back to 19th Century prophet Joseph Smith. My family has Mormon ancestry dating from the early pioneers who followed Brigham Young. And for the first 25 years of my life I lived Mormonism--often with zeal. But during my two-year full-time mission for the Church, I began doubting many of its truth claims. After an awkward and painful struggle, I chose to stop practicing Mormonism at the age of 25.
Fast forward to age 34. I am now functionally an agnostic. And despite a laundry list of differences with the Church’s teachings, I still feel strong ties to Mormonism. When a recent President of the Church passed away, I attended his funeral broadcast and teared up during the service. I welcome periodic visits from local priesthood leadership. You could compare me to a lapsed Catholic who still crosses himself from time to time. The simplest way to explain it is that I sometimes get homesick for Mormonism.
So it comes to pass that Big Love is a show I cannot watch casually. Structurally, Big Love is a soap opera. Granted, the show spends far more money per episode than daytime drama, translating into better scripts, better acting, and a finer finished product. Still, make no mistake, it is a soap opera. "Gentiles" tend to watch it that way too, relishing the shocking choices characters make and the cliff hangers that result. But for me, watching Big Love is a deeply affecting thing.
Even though the show's main characters are not mainstream Mormons--they are a splinter group--Big Love is nonetheless highly evocative of Mormonism in general. Any given episode offers a handful of trigger points. When the characters speak with great hope for the prospect of being married eternally, I don't have to extrapolate anything. I lived and nurtured that hope for 25 years. In fact, I find the concept of Eternal Marriage so beautiful that a part of me hopes I am wrong for leaving the Church. Because if I am wrong, many relatives whom I love will attain their deepest and most fervent wish.
Late in Season Three, one of the show's characters, Barb, sneaks into a Mormon temple and participates in the Church's most sacred rituals. She does not do this for insidious reasons. Though she is estranged from the main church because of polygamy, she desperately wants to participate one final time before facing excommunication. In one of the show's most controversial scenes, portions of the "Endowment" ceremony are depicted on camera. The Endowment is an interactive morality play that, through symbolism, takes participants from the Garden of Eden all the way to Heaven. I wasn’t prepared for how I reacted to Big Love's depiction of this holy rite.
As fictional Barb made her way into the Celestial Room, a temple chamber that represents Heaven, I wept. To be clear, I didn't sniffle or tear up. I bawled. Forget Kleenex. I grabbed a face towel. In my early 20s, I performed the Endowment ceremony many times. To Mormons, the Endowment ritual is viewed as essential to obtaining Eternal Life. The lessons and promises contained in it are deep and sobering, but also wondrous. Through the show's careful re-creation, I found myself reliving the emotions of it, most of them uplifting. As the pain of Barb's homesickness lifted for a few moments, so did mine.
Watching this episode was one of the most conflicting moments of my life. On the one hand, I understand and hold as valid the deep offense devout Mormons feel at a profit-making television show depicting the Endowment ceremony. In real life, Mormons are prohibited from photographing temple ceremonies, including marriage. They are held to the highest degree of sacredness. On the other hand, as a non-practicing Mormon I was heartened to see that Big Love's production team portrayed the temple rites with dignity and respect. I also think the show effectively demonstrated how there is something dissembling about Church leaders calling the excommunication process a "court of love."
I share all this in the hopes that friends who have seen the show and read this will come to understand the strong connection Mormons of all sorts feel toward their religion. If you watch Big Love, try to sift through the soap opera aspects and notice how various characters try to achieve genuine religious fulfillment. Watch how they sometimes falter, but how other times they soar. When you see the character of Barb cope with the heartbreak of being cut off from a faith she still loves, know that you are watching the story of people like me.
As for Big Love, a good show can't go on forever. Sooner or later, like past hits, Big Love will "jump the shark" as it is called. The show's makers will go too far or simply run out of fresh concepts. A character that is an audience favorite might get killed off, perhaps through an Old Testament practice called Blood Atonement. Or a romantic match will be made that audiences refuse to accept. It is the fate of even the best episodic fare. Regardless, Season Three had some great moments. And for me, the best ones were very close to home. This blog is for all us Barbs.
photo courtesy Lacey Terrell/HBO