HBO drama about Utah Polygamist Family

August 4, 2004 | 20 comments
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HBO has ordered 10 episodes of a serial drama series, produced by Tom Hanks, about a polygamist family in Utah. The story is here. Thanks to Renee for the tip.

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20 Responses to HBO drama about Utah Polygamist Family

  1. Renee on August 4, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    I thought it was kind of interesting that Bill Paxton was going to be playing the husband. He played a rather religiously extreme character in “Frailty” in 2001.

  2. john fowles on August 4, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    I have to admit that I am shaking in my boots (not because I am a polygamist but because I don’t see how this can possibly be a positive thing for Latter-day Saints). Although I admire Tom Hanks’s skill with acting and movie-making, I cannot say that I trust him to portray the Church in a positive light.

  3. Renee on August 4, 2004 at 8:33 pm

    There’s no way anything the media puts out about polygamy would put the church in a positive light.

    Even as members we distance ourself from it, and not just in the “it is no longer permitted by God” kind of way but in the “we abhor it” kind of way… which is going to be interesting if it is ever dictated as a practice again.

  4. Jeremy on August 5, 2004 at 2:47 am

    What I find interesting is the idea that the depiction of polygamy is supposedly going to be somewhat sympathetic.

    I posted a bit about this over at OT when the show was first announced back in May. The post links to an interview with Grace Zabriskie, one of the lead actresses. Zabriskie suggests that the treatment of polygamy will ultimately be an examination of xenophobia in general–and thus a subtextual treatment of subjects like homosexual marriage specifically.

    I personally don’t think it’ll be all that disastrous for the church. Unless it shows Paxton’s character walking into the Salt Lake Temple with all three wives or something, I think it could actually serve to clear up misconceptions by distinguishing the polygamist groups from mainline Mormonism–and at the very least it will probably compel people to ask questions of their Mormon friends. What is it they say in PR? All publicicity is good publicity?

  5. diogenes on August 5, 2004 at 2:59 am

    That was Brigham Young’s observation: “Whenever you kick Mormonism, you always kick it upstairs. You never kick it downstairs. That is not in the program.”

  6. BTD Greg on August 5, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    This thing looks ripe for getting it all wrong. What do you think the chances are the show will bother to point out that Bill Paxson’s character isn’t a typical LDS Church member and Utahn?

    On a related note, I finally saw the Mormon episode of South Park last night. Not as bad as I thought it would be. Actually, I thought a lot of it was extrememly funny, and I was surprised at how accurate most (but of course, not all) of it was. I don’t expect Matt and Trey to be anything but offensive, but I kind of like it. Of course, we already know that in the South Park universe, the Mormon church is the one true church and everyone else is going to Hell.

  7. JWL on August 5, 2004 at 12:31 pm

    Tom Hanks is listed as an “LDS” actor at http://www.ldsfilm.com with the following explanation
    (sorry I don’t know how to make links in these things):

    Tom Hanks:
    [Tom Hanks is neither an ethnic Mormon nor a practicing Latter-day Saint, but during his childhood he was a Latter-day Saint for a brief time after his stepmother joined the Church, until she and his father divorced (age 5 to 7). Source: David Gardner, Tom Hanks: The Unauthorized Biography, London, UK: Blake Publishing Ltd. (1999), pages 20-22, 39. Excerpts.]

    There is a link to the excerpts at http://www.ldsfilm.com. You have to scroll almost to the bottom of their long list of actors, so you might get to this citation faster by googling it.

  8. JWL on August 5, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    Here is a more direct link to the material about Tom Hanks’ Mormon experience:

    http://www.ldsfilm.com/actors/TomHanks.html

    Again, sorry I don’t know how to insert a link here.

  9. john fowles on August 5, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    Jeremy wrote: I think it could actually serve to clear up misconceptions by distinguishing the polygamist groups from mainline Mormonism–and at the very least it will probably compel people to ask questions of their Mormon friends.

    You are a good man to have such a level of faith in humanity that you would actually entertain the notion that someone outside the Church in the field of entertainment could produce something with a level of accuracy that it could “clear up misconceptions by distinguishing the polygamist groups from mainline Mormonism.” Personally, I have a hard time believing that the producers of this even know or care at all that polygamists are not members of the Church. Sure, they might know the facts of history as they interpret them: that the Church “abandoned” polygamy more than 100 years ago. But even if they allow that to come through in the film, are they going to make such a clear statement as “people practicing polygamy in Utah are not Mormons and have no association with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”? I am skeptical–people just don’t care about being politically correct when “Mormons” are the victims.

  10. john fowles on August 5, 2004 at 3:15 pm

    Having said the above, which reveals my lack of faith that Hanks is going to “get it right,” I also want to say that I agree with the Brigham Young quote offered by Diogenes.

    Any press is good press for the Church, according to that view, and although it is difficult to watch calumny as entertainment, it might still induce people to ask questions of people who know the facts and can clear up the distortions that come through in such productions.

  11. Renee on August 5, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    “ethnic Mormon”? I wouldn’t associate any religion outside of Judaism with their ethnicity. There’s too many converts in other faiths. Of course, there is that whole “mormon gene” thing in Utah but given the # of members outside the US, I wouldn’t say Utahns have an ethnic corner on the market.

  12. Jeremy on August 6, 2004 at 12:30 am

    John says: You are a good man to have such a level of faith in humanity that you would actually entertain the notion that someone outside the Church in the field of entertainment could produce something with a level of accuracy that it could “clear up misconceptions by distinguishing the polygamist groups from mainline Mormonism.”

    Um, yeah, thanks. I don’t think I’m being naively optimistic — I’m sure the show will get some things wrong, but in a whole season of shows set among polygamists in Utah, and in one of the geographyically less-secluded polygamist communities, do you really think they’ll manage to not have the polygamists run into mainstream Mormons? I’m not saying the show will seek to make us look good, but I have a hard time believing they will have done so little research as to inadvertently conflate polygamists with the rest of us, and I have a harder time believing they would deliberately and/or maliciously avoid making the distinction.

    BTD says: What do you think the chances are the show will bother to point out that Bill Paxson’s character isn’t a typical LDS Church member and Utahn?

    I think the chances are rather good. In the last few years, in coverage of polygamist issues, the press has gotten _much_ better at making clear the distinction between the poly-mormons and the mono-mormons. The production values on HBO’s in-house series tend to be quite high, and I have no reason to believe they would go out of their way to get things wrong.

    Perhaps my optimism is a reflexive resistance to an underlying attitude that I sense in this thread but don’t agree with: we as a people, perhaps in perpetual envy of our longsuffering pioneer ancestors, sometimes seem eager to find things to point to as evidence of our own oppression and victimhood–it’s almost as if we WANT Tom Hanks to get it wrong, because if Hollywood gets it wrong, it must be right. I don’t know how right he’ll get it, but I will be surprised if the show doesn’t address the difference between polygamists and mainstream mormons directly by simply showing the polygamists as outsiders within the mainstram mormon world–and at the very least I think it will point it up indirectly by simply raising the question and affording more opportunities for it to be answered correctly (i.e., in water cooler conversations, where a mormon or somebody that knows a mormon explains to a coworker what he saw on HBO the night before, etc.)

  13. Jeremy on August 6, 2004 at 12:44 am

    To follow up, this from the AP story about the show:

    HBO spokeswoman Mara Mikialian said she hadn’t seen the pilot, so she couldn’t provide many specifics about the show. She said the family would not be Mormon, and the show would be shot in California — not Utah.

    So, it seems that this AP writer and the HBO spokeswoman are already making the distinction right off the bat–and in fact using the word “Mormon” to designate non-polygamists.

  14. john fowles on August 6, 2004 at 2:17 am

    Jeremy: why can’t we be victims too? Everyone else is in our society (except WASPs, which Latter-day Saints are not).

  15. john fowles on August 6, 2004 at 2:19 am

    Jeremy: how about this possibility. Hanks shows the difference between polygamists and Latter-day Saints but then makes both seem like a cult and then hints that the Church is secretly supporting polygamy the whole time. What incentive does he have to give an accurate portrayal? His audience will gobble up a salacious soap opra much quicker than reality.

  16. Mark on August 6, 2004 at 2:59 am

    Renee: “Even as members we distance ourself from it, and not just in the “it is no longer permitted by God” kind of way but in the “we abhor it” kind of way…”

    But we still embrace it, at least in our belief that when a temple-married husband outlives his wife, he can be sealed to a second woman for all time and eternity and still remain sealed to the first as well. I wonder if that point will be brought out in the show.

  17. Jeremy on August 6, 2004 at 9:19 am

    Hanks shows the difference between polygamists and Latter-day Saints but then makes both seem like a cult and then hints that the Church is secretly supporting polygamy the whole time. What incentive does he have to give an accurate portrayal? His audience will gobble up a salacious soap opra much quicker than reality.

    What reason do we have to freak out preemptively about a show that hasn’t aired yet? Seems a bit self-indulgent to me.

    Recall, too, that Angels in America has already come and gone on HBO, and no real disaster there.

  18. Mary on August 6, 2004 at 11:20 am

    I remember an episode of “Picket Fences” that had a “Mormon” polygamist plot line. The judge character made a point of saying that the official Mormon church no longer practiced polygamy and they found out that the characters in question where part of a break-off group. So, that was at least ten years ago, and Hollywood didn’t create a smear campaign back then.

    And come on, could “Hollywood” do any worse than The R.M. and The Hometeachers?

  19. john fowles on August 6, 2004 at 11:49 am

    Jeremy: you might be right that it is a little self-indulgent on my part to harbor doubts about Hanks’s agenda in this thing. Perhaps it partially stems from my preference that Latter-day Saints define themselves, rather than being defined by the drama-seeking entertainment industry.

  20. Jeremy on August 6, 2004 at 12:17 pm

    Yeah, but when Mormons define themselves, we end up with Saturday’s Warrior, which probably has more specious doctrine in it than anything Hanks is capable of. :)

    BTW, speaking of Mormons in the media, Mitt Romney is the guest on Diane Rehm at this very moment on NPR. It’ll be archived later here.