Jul 1, 2022 - News

A look at the rise of Latter-day Saint stories on TV

Illustration of a TV with the Salt Lake City Temple on the screen.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Television series and documentaries featuring Mormonism and Latter-day Saints — real and fictional — have exploded on networks and streaming services.

Driving the news: "Under the Banner of Heaven" on Hulu, "Tokyo Vice" on HBO Max, "Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey" and "Murder Among the Mormons" on Netflix have all been released in the last two years.

  • UTBOH centers around a fictional Latter-day Saint detective investigating the real-life murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter.
  • A former Latter-day Saint missionary is portrayed in "Tokyo Vice."
  • The mini-series "Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey" dives into the crimes committed by Warren Jeffs, the former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous Mormon sect that's not affiliated with the church.

Between the lines: Troy Williams, who worked as a consultant for UTBOH, said the surge of Latter-day Saint stories is a ripple effect from Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and the Tony award-winning musical "The Book of Mormon."

What they're saying: "I think the Latter-day Saints have finally saturated American pop culture," Williams said. "We're seeing more stories and characters enter into the mainstream."

David Scott, a professor who teaches a course called "Mormons, media and popular culture" at Utah Valley University, said more Americans turned to streaming services amid the pandemic.

  • Meanwhile, a rising number of Americans are shifting their trust away from religious institutions, he said.
  • "These stories aren't new," Scott said. "These stories resonate more with popular culture now than they would have before."

Yes, but: While representation has increased, critics say Mormons are often stereotyped as polygamous, religious extremists or upstanding citizens who don’t drink, swear or smoke.

  • Hal Boyd, executive editor of Deseret National, criticized UTBOH's portrayal of church members in a scathing editorial published in April.
  • "The new serial drama … is built on the premise that my faith is dangerous — violent even," he wrote. "It's an odd thesis."
  • Leaders of the church declined to comment on this story.

The bottom line: "What I find fascinating is that Mormonism does seem to get matched up with the true crime genre quite frequently," Williams said. "I think it's healthy to have stories that courageously explore the shadows of any subculture."

  • What's clear to Williams, who quotes historian and podcast host Lindsay Hansen Park, is that there is "more than one way to Mormon, so there must be multiple stories to capture the vast Mormon world."
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