On March 12, 2006, HBO debuted Big Love, a dramedy that chronicled a family of fundamentalist Mormons living in suburban Utah as polygamists. Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer created the show, which starred Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn (Barb, wife number one), Chloë Sevigny (Nicki, second wife), and Ginnifer Goodwin (Margene, third wife) as a different type of family. Paxton’s Bill Henrickson is married to all three women, who live in separate houses, and raise his children, including then-unknown Amanda Seyfried (Sarah Henrickson).
The Emmy-nominated series spurred controversy within the Mormon community, and inspired the 2010 formation of the TLC reality show Sister Wives. However, after five seasons and 53 episodes—including Bill’s tumultuous run for Senate and the family adding and then removing another sister-wife—HBO canceled the show and aired the series finale on March 20, 2011. Here are 10 surprising facts about Big Love.
1. GEORGE W. BUSH INSPIRED THE CREATION OF THE SHOW.
Olsen and Scheffer told NPR they got the idea to explore polygamy after George W. Bush got elected for a second time, because of the “campaign-season rhetoric about what makes a family.” To them, family—especially marriage—meant different things. “Every time there’s a whiff of discord in the family, [people think] ‘they’re going to bail. This one’s going to bail,’” Olsen said. “And Will and I have never looked at it like that. We’ve never played the ‘who's going to leave the marriage’ game, because I think we have a firm belief that you stick it out—that marriage is worth sticking out.”
2. BILL HENRICKSON REPRESENTED AN “EVERYMAN.”
Olsen explained to Deadline that when they pitched the show to HBO, they described Bill as an “Everyman” who was “a good husband and father who was overwhelmed by the escalating demands of modern life ... Bill H. was a man of faith and integrity who lived with many secrets and moral uncertainties, who actively struggled with ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ and someone who was proudly, deeply ‘American.’ It didn’t take long for us to realize the part had been written for Bill Paxton.”
In casting Paxton, who passed away on February 25, 2017, the showrunners said they knew he was the right choice. “We cannot think of any actor, any man, who you’d ever want to be captain of your ship over the long and arduous journey of television making than Bill Paxton," the creators said in a statement following Paxton's death. "He was smart and collaborative and curious. He was a leader, a raconteur, a mentor.”
3. THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS WAS UNHAPPY WITH THE SHOW.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—which has more than 15 million members—outlawed polygamy in 1890 yet between 50,000 and 100,000 Mormons (mainly the fundamentalist sector) still practice polygamous relationships. When the show premiered, the church issued a statement asking HBO to place a disclaimer at the beginning of episodes stating that the fictional family is not associated with the organization. “Those groups which continue the practice in Utah and elsewhere have no association whatever with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and most of their practitioners have never been among our members,” the LDS’s statement read. “It will be regrettable if this program, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimizes the seriousness of that problem.”
HBO eventually relented and placed a disclaimer on an episode. In 2009, the show once again angered the church, this time with an endowment ceremony—something that Mormons prefer to keep secret.
4. NICKI WAS MORE THAN JUST A PERSON PEOPLE LOVED TO HATE.
Although Sevigny's Nicki at times seemed like a villain, she was the glue that held the Henricksons together. “The family had to swim through a lot of shit with Nicki, but she provided the family something unconditional,” Ginnifer Goodwin told Vulture. “Nicki reminded them all the time about what was so important about faith. The pros outweighed the cons.”
In developing Nicki, Olsen and Scheffer made her someone who didn’t fit in. “We wanted Nicki to cover her insecurities with a sense of entitlement, the sort of polygamist princess, and Chloë Sevigny gave that really well,” Olsen told the Los Angeles Times. “And she gave the ambiguity of the character real depth."
5. PAXTON DIDN’T SEE HAVING THREE WIVES AS A “MALE FANTASY.”
Paxton told the Los Angeles Times that a man married to three women wasn’t “some male fantasy thing” but a “male nightmare.” “You put a kid in the candy store and you say to the kid: eat as much candy as you want,” he said. “Go on, eat as much candy as you want. And then you ask the kid the next day, ‘Hey you want some candy?’ And the kid’s going to look at you like he never wants to see another piece of candy in his life.”
6. IT WAS A PRO-FEMALE SHOW.
“The big secret of the show is that it’s always been a feminist show,” Olsen told NPR. “And even though it was dramatizing this very patriarchal system in some ways, the opportunities that women found—particularly in this very abusive system—to support each other was what drew us to the material in the first place, and gave us reason to want to explore it. We felt that there were opportunities for women to find support in one another.”
By the series finale, it’s clear the three women will stick together and forge a new life. Paxton also shared the sentiment of Big Love inevitably being a show about the women.
“I was kind of a fiduciary character in many ways,” Paxton told The Huffington Post. “It was really, how do these women relate to each other, sharing this guy and this religion and this whole thing? And how are they going to carry on now that he’s gone probably was a more interesting dynamic.”
7. AARON PAUL WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A “POSSIBLE RECURRING” CHARACTER.
Before Breaking Bad made Aaron Paul a household name, the up-and-coming actor played Sarah’s boyfriend-turned-husband Scott Quittman, from 2007 to 2010. He told Fade In the part was listed as “possible recurring.” “It’s weird,” Paul said. “They just kept having me back.”
Despite Breaking Bad taking off in 2008, Paul found time to star in six more Big Love episodes, including the series finale. “And I thought once Breaking Bad got picked up, Big Love would be done, and so did Big Love,” he said. “They were trying to figure a way to end the relationship, and they actually did end the relationship with Scott and Sarah. But I just stayed in contact with HBO and some of the producers there. I said, ‘Breaking Bad is totally open to me coming back if you can work it out with the schedule.’ They were like, ‘Really?’ So they [raised] my character from the dead again, and brought me back, and we got back together, fell madly in love, and got married.”
8. MATT ROSS DIDN’T KNOW ALBY’S SEXUALITY UNTIL LATER.
Ross played the sinister cult leader Alby Grant, Nicki’s brother, for five seasons. In the beginning, Alby’s sexual orientation was ambiguous. “I think the first scene where I was wondering about his sexuality was when he picks up a drifter or a hustler in a convenience store and he takes him home,” Ross told NPR. “And that was just obviously a strange thing to do. I mean, well, why is he doing that? That was not clear.” Ross thought Alby just wanted to feel something other than numbness, so Alby put himself in a dangerous situation. But later on, Ross figured it out. “I read a scene where it said Alby is—I think he'd been arrested for doing something. And he was in a police station. And it said Alby is checking out all the butts of the cops that are there. And I was like, OK, well, OK, if he's checking out their butts then he’s, you know, this is his sexuality.”
9. THE SHOW ENDED WITH BILL BECOMING A HERO.
The series ends with a neighbor shooting and killing Bill—yet the sister wives decide to stay together. “We wanted to give him a Gary Cooper exit from the show, but it went much deeper than that,” Olsen said to NPR. “We didn’t want Bill to go out a loser or a failure or an unrepentant fundamentalist. And we wanted to find that thing that would render his life’s existence the most successful. We felt [that] the greatest testimony to Bill would be that he had created a family that endured.”
10. PAXTON WANTED BILL TO LIVE.
The actor told The Huffington Post that he wished Bill hadn’t been killed off in the series finale, but he understood why. “The guy was really a revolutionary like Jesus Christ was in some ways,” Paxton said. “I don’t know, I guess society can’t reward that guy, because he is really living outside of society … I guess I was just really fond of the guy and I thought that after all that he had gone through, he deserved to find a quiet place in the sun.”