'Big Love' Gets Unwarranted Criticism From Mormon Church

HBO's Mormon polygamy drama, "Big Love," has long been one of those shows that seem to exist theoretically. It's the opposite of a show like "Mad Men" or "Gossip Girl," which are far more talked about than they are actually watched; "Big Love" is a show talked about so little that, until it returns from hiatus, it's easy to forget that people watch it. But last week, there was suddenly a burst of buzz about "Big Love," with Mormon groups protesting a scene from this past Sunday's episode, "Outer Darkness." The controversy was over a detailed depiction of a temple ceremony, a ritual that is typically performed behind closed doors within a Mormon temple, with true believers and participants as its only audience.

I was immediately reminded of the furor surrounding the "South Park" episode "Trapped in the Closet," which revealed the "Xenu story" that is, depending on whom you ask, either entirely fabricated or central to the beliefs of Scientologists, and privileged information only available to the most elite members of that church. (Understanding people's sensitivity over this issue, and anticipating the ton of angry e-mail I'm likely to get, let me be clear in saying that the comparison has to do purely with the similar nature of the controversies, not with any attempt to compare the two religions.) The Xenu story was detailed in "Closet" and then spoofed in "The Return of Chef," the episode that killed off the character played by the late Isaac Hayes after Hayes, a Scientologist, quit the show in protest following the "Closet" brouhaha. "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone accused Hayes of hypocrisy because he'd eagerly cashed the checks they had cut him for episodes making fun of other religions, but apparently couldn't handle it when a satirical eye was turned toward his own faith.

It was a valid point—two years prior, "South Park" did an episode called "All About the Mormons," in which the show lampooned Joseph Smith and the very basis for the Mormon faith. The Church of Latter-Day Saints bristled, and understandably so, but the current reaction to the "Big Love" episode seems misguided and counterproductive. If there are objections about the accuracy of the temple scene in "Big Love," that would be a debate worth having. But the issue seems not to be that the ceremony was misrepresented, but that it was represented at all. The Church of Latter-Day Saints and the Church of Scientology are both of the opinion that some things are so sacred, they shouldn't be shown at all.

The issue with this position is the practical matter that in order for people to be tolerant of something, they have to understand what they are being tolerant of. That isn't to say religions shouldn't be able to have secret ceremonies; they should. But given the importance of faith and its huge role in the lives of the faithful, there's a direct relationship between the level of mystery involved in a religion and the likelihood that people of other faiths will be tolerant of it. If the issue is misinformation, it makes perfect sense that a church would want to have its say. But "Big Love" creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer maintained in a statement that they worked with a qualified adviser who was on the set the entire time. They said that they understood the gravity of portraying the ceremony and took technical accuracy seriously.

If the concern was that this sacred ceremony was presented without enough context, the LDS church needn't worry. As shown in "Big Love," the rite struck me as peculiar, but no more peculiar than any other religious ceremony anyone takes part in, including ones I've taken part in myself. That's the nature of faith: Stuff seems weird sometimes, but you roll with it anyway. And regular viewers had plenty of context for the scene. The ceremony was shown through the perspective of Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a character viewers have spent more than two seasons getting to know. Understanding her personality, her needs and motivations, lent the ritual the same level of credibility it would have if a close friend relayed the story of a religious rite they had taken part in. You accept Barb's faith because you accept Barb. That's the beauty of television.

People of faith are within their right to keep aspects of their religious beliefs out of the public eye. Of course, it isn't a requirement for anyone outside that belief system to hew to those guidelines of secrecy, but as a matter of common decency, they should strive for some level of accuracy in representing those private aspects of the faith. The "Big Love" team did that. It could be worse. While "Big Love" was on, over on NBC was "Kings," a retelling of David and Goliath as a glossy, catty nighttime soap. And did I mention Goliath is literally a tank?