Years before TLC launched its polygamous reality show Sister Wives, Tom Hanks and company produced HBO's award-winning drama series Big Love, about a family of polygamists who emerged out of a creepy Mormon splinter group.

I've watched all five seasons of Big Love, including Sunday night's series finale. Creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer told the Los Angeles Times this week that the series emerged from their marriage, with the goal of communicating the idea that marriages can endure change. What appealed to me about the show was how it parsed the challenges of breaking free from a closed religious community while grappling with the community's best ideals and penetrating reach.

The fact that the show was built around polygamy wasn't a hindrance for a variety of reasons, not the least because of a conversation I had with an African friend who compared American "serial monogamy" unfavorably with his own culture's polygamy. Also, by dislocating the faith struggle outside familiar television narratives, Big Love made the subject seem fresh rather than tired.

The plot centered on two families from the sect, the Grants and the Hendricksons. The Grants represent legalism and corruption, while the Hendricksons represent an amalgam of religious identities. Bill Hendrickson was kicked out of "the compound" as a teenager and was taken into the Mormon fold, where he met and married Barb, a woman of high Mormon pedigree. After many years of marriage, Bill senses a call back to polygamy. Barb goes along with his vision after a life-changing bout with cancer. Bill marries Nicki Grant, the daughter of his arch-nemesis Roman Grant, and then Margene, a much younger woman with sparse religious ...

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