Tag Archives: Quality TV

Week 8: ‘Big Love’, It’s Mighty Hard to Classify

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.


Week 7: The Problems With “Quality TV” and Emergence of Narrative Complexity

The term “Quality TV” was destined to be contentious. It is used by some to describe a distinct form of television storytelling that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. Specifically, it refers to those long-form programs presented in series structure which bring narrative complexity and innovation to the fore and present an alternative to traditional episodic and serial storytelling. Commonly cited examples include The SopranosThe Wire and Breaking Bad.

“Quality TV” is a problematic term because it sounds like a value judgement, apparently positioning one of television’s many branches as superior to the others. At their simplest, value judgements manifest as notions of what is “good” or “bad” and are subjective by nature. There are widely held views on certain things, but just because a lot of people hated Garfield 2 (Tim Hill, 2006) doesn’t mean everyone hated Garfield 2. Come on, the animation is pretty cool.

This is the primary reason why I prefer the way Jason Mittell describes this relatively new breed of programming: “narratively complex” TV. As Mittell points out in his article, ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’: “Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed.” He goes on to explore some of the key aspects of complex narrative television.

…we thrill both at the stories being told and at the way in which their telling breaks television conventions” (Jason Mittell, 2006, p.36).

It’s hard to define narratively complex television for the simple reason that it is not nearly so formula-driven as typical episodic (e.g. The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) or serial programming (e.g. Neighbours, Home and Away, General Hospital). Instead, Mittel says, narrative complexity challenges these television norms, while simultaneously employing the two. He proclaims that this “…interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” is one of the key identifying factors of narrative complexity. It is “non-discrete” episodic TV that promotes the sense of ongoing and multi-faceted narratives spanning a variety of established genres.

This multi-focal approach – with both story arcs across both episodes and seasons – immediately reminds me of Showtime’s Dexter. Mittell describes The X-Files as having a “monster-of-the-week” focus while proliferating the longer-term narrative arc of the show’s own “mythology”. Similarly, episodes of Dexter mostly feature a “kill of the week” – a bad guy that Dexter (Michael C. Hall) researches, stalks and idiosyncratically whacks for their crimes. These weekly tales occur within season-long narrative frameworks similar to those Mittell associates with Buffy. Each season of Dexter has a primary “villain”: The Ice Truck Killer (Season 1), Bay Harbor Butcher (Season 2), Miguel Prado (Season 3), The Trinity Killer (Season 4), and so on. It is a mix of cop show, thriller, mystery, romance and black comedy and the show’s numerous episodic and season-long story arcs reflect this.

But there is also an over-arching narrative arc that runs for the show’s entirety. Dexter finds himself  unable to meaningfully connect with human feelings and emotions. By remembering more and more from his past (which take the form of flashbacks), he is forever trying to discover himself and his humanity. Dexter’s voiceover narration is an amazing storytelling device. It offers insights into his state of mind, reveals where he is at in his quest for self-discovery and frequently contradicts what his face and body language is outwardly telling other characters. It can be funny, frightening and strange. I can’t see this plot arc ever reaching any kind of genuine resolution – Dexter’s character is too foreign, layered and unknowable.

Season 10: Dexter remembers everything from his troubled past, suddenly feels true emotions and IT ALL MAKES SENSE. I don’t see this happening. It had better not!

Mittell also points out that episodes of narratively complex programs rarely have neatly packaged endings. This encourages viewers to watch the next installment, which will then propel or colour the narrative further. “Cliffhangers” immediately spring to mind – moments that have you demanding to know what happens next. The Game of Thrones pilot ends in this fashion, with one character pushed out of a window by another – will they live, or will they perish?

Sometimes it is an entire season of a narratively complex program that ends with a cliffhanger, like the Twin Peaks season one finale, which concludes as Agent Cooper is gunned down, his fate unknown. Being forced to wait until the release of a new episode or season can be frustrating, but also exciting.

Mittell goes as far as to say that narrative mechanics, the way a complicated story is written and constructed, can be a source of viewer pleasure in itself – “narrative special effects”. He connects this to the “operational aesthetic” audiences revel in while watching the work of elaborate physical/stunt comedies like those of Buster Keaton, or more recently Frank Woodley. Mittell says the viewer satisfaction and wonder derived from many complex comedies as coming from asking “how did they do that?” as opposed to “what will happen next?”.

Seinfeld is the perfect example of the remarkable tying together of several seemingly unrelated storylines through cleverly orchestrated “coincidence” and “chance”. That’s why Mittell cites it. HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (also created by Seinfeld‘s Larry David) is also mentioned, but not given nearly enough time.

Littered with self-referentiality, Curb is sometimes so beautifully cringeworthy that it’s hard to watch. But it’s also impossible to look away – I blame the artful writing. At its centre is the painfully inflammatory “Larry David” (Larry David). No matter how hard he tries, Larry cannot escape conflict. Sometimes it looks like he’ll escape condemnation, ridicule, attack, physical violence or some or all of the above. That’s just what the creators want you to think. But he never does. The show’s writing creates the equivalent effect of an on-screen explosion. It never fails to amaze me.

It seems appropriate to finish this post with a nod to this week’s timely edition of The Age‘s greenguide, the front cover of which reads: “The A-List: We choose the best 25 shows from the last 25 years.” You can probably take a guess at which shows are on the list. No prizes.