Phwoar! Imagine having three (or even four) wives, all of which know about and accept the existence of each other. That foreign concept alone was enough to capture my curiosity about HBO drama Big Love (2006-2011).
For a show that is widely regarded as complex narrative television, Big Love relies on many of the conventions commonly associated with melodrama-rich soap operas. These include, but are not limited to: a focus on a network of interconnected relationships, moments of sentimentality and melodrama and narrative seriality.
The characters in Big Love are about as interconnected as characters get. In the pilot, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives, Barb Henrickson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette Grant (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene Heffman (Ginnifer Goodwin), are in one big, four-pronged relationship. The opening episode contains numerous highs and lows and sets up narrative and character conflicts. It contains moments, both brief and prolonged, that encapsulate a variety of established genres – drama, romance, tragedy, comedy and soap opera to name a few. Multiplicity of genre is a feature of narratively complex television, as outlined by Jason Mittell.
It’s impossible to nail down a narratively complex show as being this or that with regards to genre. In the case of Big Love it would be possible to find evidence to back up a plethora of claims: “It’s a soap”, “It’s quality TV”, “It’s a tragedy”, “It’s a dark comedy”, “It’s a political piece about the Mormon existence in modern day America” – the list goes on and on. I think the reality is that it is all of these things, and more. That’s what I like about “high-end” programming. There’s something there for most people.
Being asked to classify Big Love for this blog post has transported me back to my primary school days, when I would come home after school, prepare afternoon tea and sit down in front of Passions. This pattern went on for about a year, maybe it was grade four or five. The trials and tribulations of Timmy (the creepy doll that comes to life) and Tabitha (the evil witch in hiding) was my favourite aspect of this soapiest of soaps, the only program of its type I’ve ever watched more than once.
After my first viewing of Big Love and being asked to consider its relationship to the soap opera, I saw some likeness between it and Passions. It is curious that soaps, so often mocked and written off as “bad TV” without a second thought, appear to share some common ground with one of HBO’s glorified, “super-TV” texts.
For scholar Michael Kackman, the crossover that exists between narratively complex television (such as Big Love) and the daytime soap opera suggests a very direct relationship between the two. He reads it as an indication that soap operas inform and influence the “quality TV” dramas that form what some have heralded as “television’s new golden age of aesthetic quality”.
In his article, ‘Flow Favorites: Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity”, Kackman uses Lost to illustrate his point. Specifically, he asserts that a sappy, melodramatic exchange between characters Jack and Kate is “…a shameless wallow in weak-kneed, bodice-ripping melodrama”. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe the sequence that follows – a flash-forward of Jack driving a Mustang blaring Nirvana and contemplating one of the narratives many mysteries. Kackman sees it as similarly soapy in its melodramatic excess, just in a less traditional, more “masculine” way.
Kackman’s provocative and contentious argument paints recent primetime dramas, like Big Love, as current manifestations of the soap opera – the next stop along TV’s evolutionary path, rather than as an entirely new televisual form.
Standing in opposition to Kackman, Jason Mittell sees primetime narratively complex television as influenced not by daytime soaps, but by comic books and 19th Century literature. I haven’t read an e-mail interview as assigned material for a university course before, but I like the appearance of honesty fostered by Mittell’s first-person responses.
Mittell believes the only real commonality between soaps and narrative complexity is their “…connections to 1970s and 1980s primetime serials”. Both Kackman and Mittell have compelling arguments, but I can’t help but sit on the fence.
Personally, I think the presence of “soap opera-esque” moments and themes in narratively complex programs can sometimes be explained by the fact that writers often fall into writing “melodramatically” by accident. It can be easy, but it’s not necessarily a cop out. Because it’s such well-covered territory, writing in a soapy fashion is sometimes the most effective way of getting information across – those two characters love each other, there’s tension in the air etc..
As Mittell says, it’s hard to dip in and out of narratively complex programs, which tend to progress a lot faster than soap operas. Maybe it’s time I dip back into Passions, if just for old time’s sake.