Sunday, January 17, 2010

Big Love's Best Season

On Thursday night, I finally finished watching the ten episodes of Big Love's third season (on DVD; Season Four is now playing on HBO). I know that I'm violating my "3 posts a week" New Year's Resolution...but give me a break! Too much has been going on and in case you haven't guessed, I love writing and can easily do a blog post a day and much prefer that. However, I wanted to scale back as I focused on my job search. Already, though, there have been many things I wanted to write about and haven't because of my restrictive three posts a week. I still have a post on Mad Men coming this week, as well as a movie review of a film I had free passes to see two weeks ago. So, looks like next week already has a full week of posts lined up.

I am a big fan of Big Love. Season One was a shock to the senses when I first saw it two years ago. I didn't expect the sex scenes to be so explicit. That was one major eye opener. Even more outrageous than that is the brilliant way this show plays with your sense of morality. Make no mistake. I have inherited my church's anti-polygamist views. I am a fifth generation member of the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For those who aren't familiar with Latter Day Saints history (my non-Mormon and non-Saints friends), the founding prophet Joseph Smith established the Church of Christ in 1830 with the publication of the Book of Mormon, which he claimed was a translation from ancient brass and gold plates that he was directed by Angel Moroni to dig up from Hill Cumorah near Palmyra, New York.

As the church grew, the members moved west, first to Kirtland OH, then to Independence MO (where my church has its headquarters), then to Nauvoo IL. At one point, Nauvoo was even larger than Chicago. It was at Nauvoo where Joseph received his strangest revelations, and there is much dispute among the various factions of splinter groups about what is or is not legitimate prophecy. One of those revelations was about man becoming gods of their own world in the afterlife. The other one was about polygamy. Anti-Mormon opposition grew and an angry mob stormed the Carthage Jail, assassinating Joseph Smith in 1844. He was 39 years old.

Brigham Young assumed leadership and led most of the followers west to Utah. Those who stayed behind included Joseph's widow Emma. According to my church, Joseph's son Joseph III was supposed to become the next prophet, but Joseph was too young. The people who disagreed with the doctrines of men becoming gods, Masonic temple rites, baptisms of the dead, eternal marriage and polygamy "reorganized" the church in 1860. Joseph III was 24 years old and assumed the leadership, rather reluctantly. Ever since then, our two churches went in separate directions. The Mormons grew to over ten million members today, while the RLDS church has remained around 250,000 members for most of my life. In 2001, we changed the name of the church to Community of Christ, which brings it closer to the original name (Church of Christ) and gets rid of the "Latter Day Saints" distinction that confuses people. Theologically, the Community of Christ is closer to the Methodist Church than to the Latter Day Saints Church.

Though the Community of Christ is a small church, I have always been proud of our anti-polygamy stance. It was the one moral absolute that I loved bringing up at BYU whenever Mormons tried to convert me to their church. I loved to bring up the LDS practice of polygamy at any and every opportunity because it is a sticking point. To this day, it remains the biggest thorn in the side of a church that has modeled itself on the 1950s-ideal "All American" business look. In modern times, Mormons are about as wholesome American as you can get. Even Brigham Young himself wouldn't recognize the LDS Church today (his namesake university has a conservative dress code which forbids male students to have beards...even though Brigham Young himself had one!).

Polygamy, though, is the one part of the past that they cannot erase. When Joseph Smith, Jr. revealed the doctrine of polygamy, he presented it as "the new and everlasting covenant." Subsequent LDS prophets have said that if polygamy was ever done away with, it should be viewed as a sign of the church being in apostasy. When prophets make claims like those, its hard to reverse yourself and look credible. However, pressure by the Republican Party mounted. It was a party against slavery and polygamy in the 1800s (kind of ironic that Mormons today are overwhelmingly Republican despite having their sacred covenant banned because of this party). In fact, the federal government forced the governor of Utah territory to make polygamy illegal as a pre-condition for statehood. LDS prophet and president Woodruff released a document in 1890 that ended the practice of polygamy...at least in the United States. Mormon settlers in Mexico and Canada still maintained the practice.

Some die-hards, though, could not accept this change in church doctrine so they split away. The largest of the polygamist groups renamed itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and have a large settlement in Colorado City, Arizona, as well as in Texas, Mexico, and British Columbia. This group was in the news last year when the children were rounded up after allegations of child abuse surfaced. Most Americans not familiar with this group mistakenly thought that they were Mormons. FLDS is considered an apostate group that broke away from the mainline LDS Church. They have their own prophet / leader, temples, and live on communes rather than among the rest of the population. The FLDS have distorted what polygamy originally was. To them, it became a way to control women. Men could dress in modern style (jeans and button down shirt) but the girls and women dressed in pioneer clothes and often sported the same braided hairstyle. Its like watching the cast of Little House on the Prairie.

Now we get to Big Love. I loved Season One but was disappointed with Season Two. After watching Season Three, I was impressed at every turn. It is by far the best season (I won't get to see Season Four until its released on DVD, probably next year). There are a lot of scheming going on by everyone.

The brilliance of Big Love is that it has a likable American family at the center, so of course the audience roots for them. Bill Henrickson (played by the always likable Bill Paxton) is the patriarch who owns the Utah chain store Henricksons Home Plus (a Lowes or Home Depot competitor). He wants to expand his business into casinos on Native American reservations. His first wife, Barb lived all her life in a regular Mormon family and hadn't officially left the church. Bill was raised in a very dysfunctional polygamous family (his parents are always scheming to kill one another). They were active LDS for awhile, until they decided to "live the principle" (of plural marriage, which is still the LDS ideal for the afterlife). His second wife is Nicolette Grant, daughter of the prophet of the United Effort Brotherhood, which is a polygamous sect that lives on a compound somewhere in the Utah shrublands. Third wife is the quite young and perky Margene.

Nicolette is far and away my favourite of the wives and the one I would be most attracted to, even though she was raised in a polygamous family and has no problems with it. She's just an interesting character and I especially love it when she pouts and defends herself when she feels that she's being ganged up on. She has a few schemes this season, though. Namely, her loyalties are divided between her corrupt father (Roman Grant), who's on trial for child abuse, and her husband Bill, who is helping the D.A. with info to put Roman behind bars for life. Her brother Alby wants to succeed their father as the next prophet of the group. He has several wives and a dirty secret: he also likes sex with men (polygamists are strangely anti-homosexual, even though they have to expel boys from the community in order to keep the ratio of women to men high).

This season, Nicki falls for the District Attorney, whom she worked for in order to find information about the case to deliver to her father so he can be found not guilty and released. This causes a lot of problems for the Henrickson family, but its also delicious irony. She never had the opportunity to date different men and make a decision for herself. She was given away in marriage without little say. This season, you could see her getting used to the idea of actually dating and falling for a man without her father telling her who she would marry.

The episode in which the family made a road trip from their homes in Sandy, Utah to Palmyra, New York was awesome! In one scene, they stop at Carthage Jail in Illinois to view where Joseph Smith was martyred. In that scene, Bill argues with another guy about Joseph's supposed polygamy. The other guy claimed that Joseph's other wives were widows and orphans, whom he felt responsible to provide for their wellbeing, rather than a sexual concubine. It made me wonder if that other guy was supposed to be a member of the Community of Christ. This view was enhanced a few scenes later, when Paul Simon's "Graceland" played as Bill drives along the river. The lyrics fit the scene, but not the location. But I laughed out loud as soon as I heard the song's familiar tune because it could very well be an inside joke for those "in the know" (such as me!). Out of all the songs to use in that scene, why Paul Simon's "Graceland"? What's so significant about "Graceland" you ask? Well, its a popular album and song among Community of Christ members because our church-sponsored college is called Graceland (its located in Lamoni, Iowa and has about 1,000 students). I would love to talk to the person who made that episode to find out if they used that song as a wink to the Community of Christ members or if it was just one of those weird coincidences. Whatever the real reason, it was a thrill just to experience that scene!

The episode I was most interested in, though was the controversial one that reveals part of the LDS temple endowment ceremony. Non-LDS members and LDS members who do not have a Temple Recommend card issued by their bishop are not allowed to enter the sacred space of those beautiful temples you see in every major city. In order to get a Temple Recommend, one must endure the intrusive interview by his or her bishop, which include questions about keeping the sacraments, living the law of chastity (for single people), and wearing the sacred garments (what some derogatorily call "Mormon underwear"). In this episode, Barb is so distraught by the news of her upcoming disciplinary hearing (where excommunication is decided) that she begs her mother to bring her to the Temple so she can experience the Temple rites for the final time. The show doesn't explain how her Temple Recommend card is forged, but they do show a part of the ceremony that one can only assume is based on actual rituals. I've only read about what goes on in books, so it was a thrill to see it on the screen.

I thought it was a bunch of hoopla over nothing. I hope I don't offend my Mormon friends...but the Temple rituals seem kind of silly to me. They wear white garments and funny looking head coverings. They stand next to an unseen person, divided by a veil with slots to put hands through. They give unique handshakes, speak from a memorized script with code words and Biblical names. Its supposed to be a powerful experience. Many of the rooms are painted lavishly along themes (Creation Room, for example, and one that is like the Garden of Eden). One is supposed to feel like they are in the spiritual realm. For me, that would be the biggest reason why I would want to go inside. I admire the LDS for trying to re-create the feeling of heaven on the earthly plane and offering the opportunity for its members to experience that whenever they want to. However, I'm not a ritual-oriented guy so I would find doing that sort of thing to be kind of boring. I'd rather just sit on a chair in the Celestial room and meditate for awhile without being bothered. Supposedly, there is also reenactments of the LDS view of how our world was created (where Satan makes an appearance) and this is controversial because of the claims that Mormons believe that all other churches are in cahoots with Satan (only the LDS Church is "the one true church" established by God the father and Jesus the son).

The final episode of the season was sweet. Bill decides with his family to form his own church, which is somewhere between the corporate conformity of the LDS Church and the dysfunctional immorality of the United Effort Brotherhood polygamous group Bill was raised in. Bill is such a nice guy that if he was a real person, I would be friends with him and not even make an issue of his polygamy. That's the brilliance of this show. It can get an anti-polygamist guy like me to look at it and think, if consenting adults want that for themselves, who am I to say no? I like that the show displays a contrast between this all-American family who happen to practice polygamy and the dysfunction of the compound folks where women marry at 14 and wear pioneer clothing all their lives, serving their husband for the rest of eternity. It would suck to be a girl born to a polygamist family. I feel for all those young girls who are brainwashed in FLDS schools about their purpose in life: to be wives at 14 to men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers.

Also this season, Bill wants to bring in wife number 4, a Serbian lady named Ana who reluctantly agrees before she learns what it all implies. I found these episodes to be fascinating because again, it shows how different my mindset is to other people. Ana is willing to jump into a polygamous marriage because she loves Bill. She only balks after learning (after having married him and moved into the house) that all the money she makes gets put in the communal bank account. Wouldn't this question come up BEFORE she decided to get married? I'm constantly amazed by how easily some people are willing to marry someone without thinking through every possible point of contention.

Of course, this only made me think of Christine, who was willing to give up everything she owned and her life in Portland to be with a man she only knew through two years of long-distance relationship (with a few short weeks of being together). For me, I couldn't do what she did...especially one who lived in a country / culture that didn't interest me. Even if I loved a foreign lady, I could not give up my life in America unless she lived in a country / culture I like (which is limited to an English speaking country or France). I also can't be in a relationship with a lady without knowing her spiritual views at the start...which is probably why I'm still single. But divorce is too common and too easy, so it is vital that all the major points of compatability are addressed up front.

After the season finale, I was impressed. Definitely better than the previous two seasons with enough intrigue spilling into Season Four. I may have to get this season on DVD...its worth watching many times...especially the episodes that feature "Graceland" and the Temple endowment ceremony.

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