God only knows what I would be without Big Love.
HBO is known for ‘quality tv’, a category that Big Love clings to despite being a tv series that relies on melodramatic conventions typified by daytime soap operas. This mixing of genres comments on TV’s birth in the daytime that is influencing the narrative complexity of today’s quality typically primetime programs.
In his article ‘More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality’ Jason Mittell explains that the evolution of TV from its humble beginnings has now been expanded further:
“All of these shows [Buffy, Angel, Six Feet Under, Alias and 24] seemed invested in expanding the vocabulary of prime time television, both incorporating serial form and by embracing more overt narrative experimentation: temporal manipulation, moments of “retelling” the same scene from a different perspective, “reboot” scenarios that change the course of the series quite significantly, and an overt acknowledgement of narrative mechanics (like 24’s “real time” structure and title, or Six Feet Under’s “death of the week” norm).”
Mittell also points out differences he sees between soap opera and primetime drama, such as “the sheer commitment it takes to get into a soap, needing both a community of viewers to share it with and a lot of time to dedicate to its consumption – the barriers to entry are quite high.” However, I find this idea could equally apply to primetime drama. Although the volume of daytime soaps may be higher, five shows a week all year round instead of 22 a season, I think Mittell may be underestimating the effort it takes to get in to a series that is already five seasons long with an essentially “complex” plot that needs to be focused on, as opposed to the relaxed and perhaps distracted way of viewing soaps that Mittell mentions.
Another idea Mittell brings up is that soap operas are becoming denigrated because they do not lend themselves to the ‘drop-in’ viewer. I find this the complete opposite! I can easily watch one episode of Days of Our Lives every three months and pretty much know who has been doing what (and who) due to the large amount of repetition and explanation through dialogue. Alternatively, I try to watch the first episode of season three of The Wire in class (a show that as Michael Kackman reiterates Terry Gross of NPR as a program with “the ultimate mark of distinction for it was to detach fully from its medium of origin, and [be] placed in its ‘true’ aesthetic context – that of cinema“) and I am left completely in the dark.
Big Love is built on the soap opera tradition of the love triangle, transposed to different, and to me more complex and interesting, context, one where moral judgement is difficult to put in the clear-cut notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The ‘serial drama format’, as Mittell describes it, allows the action to play out in a way that challenges the audience, and it is not until a few – or many, for some people (me) – episodes in that opinions can be distinctly made about characters and events.
A key convention of the complex narrative that I’ve found is the complex character: a conflicted, often arrogant, individual who has the ability to be both good and bad, loved and hated or both at various moments of the series. Bill instantly relates to these typical ideas. However, this idea harks back into literature, a notable example that springs to mind being the conundrum that is Hamlet.
Big Love is ultimately a complex ‘quality’ drama which concerns itself with ideas of love, family values, religion in everyday life, marriage as an institution and power, in a context that the targeted audience is expected to know little to nothing about. A winning combination in my book, despite being one that has been played about before.