‘Big Love’ – the Legitimised Soap-Opera?

Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer’s series Big Love serves as a fantastic case-study for exploring this apparent emergence of “quality TV.” Big Love certainly fits under the umbrella of “complex narrative television” that Jason Mittell explores. However like many other shows of the same vein, The Wire or Lost for example, it could be said to have clear links to other forms or genres – notably the soap opera. This rooting of complex narrative television in the classic soap opera genre stems from the fact that they share two important common elements, established by Mittell as “seriality…and an investment in melodrama.”

Big Love represents all the fascinating things that this new wave of “quality TV” has to offer as discussed in Mittell’s initial article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.  Firstly, it aired on HBO, the self-proclaimed champions of “quality TV.” Moreover, it balances “serial and episodic pleasures”. In the pilot episode there are many questions (direct and indirect) left unanswered which prevail over the episodes and seasons to come. Is Bill’s mother poisoning his father? How will Bill continue to satisfy his three multi-faceted wives? Will Bill prevail in his wish to keep his business separate from Roman’s Mormon enterprise?  Will Barb and Nicki learn to get along or will their constant fighting prove to be the destruction of the family unit? Etc. etc. However, we also get a neat episodic, beginning, middle and end portion of the episode, most notably in the impotence plot-line. Moreover, the characters are complex and three-dimensional, as is the overall theme and story world the show is tackling. All this suggests that Big Love fits nicely in the “quality TV” genre.

However, critics such as Michael Kackman disagree entirely with this label “quality.” In his article Lost: Quality Television, Melodrama and Culturally Complex, Kackman proposes that the “quality” label merely serves as an attempt to “legitimise” this new form of serial drama as a kind of art-form in opposition to it’s low-form, soap-operatic “roots”. Kackman writes that serialised television relies on melodrama (a feature traditionally employed in soap operas) as its “simultaneous invocation of, and inability to resolve, social tensions, that makes it such a ripe form for serial narrativization, and which makes it a central, and maybe even necessary, component of quality television.”

Indeed, Big Love certainly succumbs to the melodramatic. This is clearest in the show’s finale, when a previously unimportant character shoots Bill relatively out of the blue. The three wives crowd over him like angels as he disappears into the white light. This kind of “killing” – the randomness of it and the fact that it seemingly was put in there for some spectacular closure, smacks of the kind of yearning for something dramatic to happen which is so apparent in soap operas such as Neighbours. Sometimes we can’t help but wonder if the writer’s are thinking “A lesbian! We haven’t had a female character come out yet! Let’s do that!”

However my interpretation of the final killing might be reductive. In his lecture, Brian Morris discussed the notion of “tragedy”. If interpreted in this way, Bill’s being killed by a seemingly unimportant character is reflective of the tragedy’s narrative resolution through “punishment” of the protagonist – Bill didn’t realise the consequences of his arrogance until it was too late. Regardless of the interpretation, Bill’s untimely end is certainly a melodramatic feature of the show.

Mittell counter-argues this notion that “complex narrative television” is in fact based on a format of the “legitimised” soap in his article More Thoughts on Soap Operas and Television Seriality. He claims that despite the link though seriality and melodrama:

I don’t think the contemporary primetime narrative complexity that I write about has much in common with or influence from soap operas, except through their common connections to 1970s and 1980s primetime serials. They are distinctly different in production method, scheduling, acting style, pacing, and formal structure.

Indeed, the acting style in Big Love is realistic and understated (a definite preference of the “complex narrative” show), the pacing is necessarily much faster and the exposition isto the point considering the vast difference in airtime. (Big Love only aired 53 hours over five years, whereas a typical soap might air for 200 hours over a single year.) The audience is decidedly different. The primetime night show lends itself to fully attentive individuals, picking up on all the character subtleties and narrative shifts imbedded in the plot. The daytime viewer, however, tends to have the show on in the background, multi-tasking with the show and something else. This is reinforced by the fact that very little changes over a week in a soap-opera compared to over a single episode of a primetime show like Big Love.

Ultimately I have to agree with Mittell. Though Big Love certainly features melodrama, often to a somewhat irksome extent as with in the finale, I find it hard to think of it as merely a “legitimised” soap. I feel that this comes down to the agenda of a “complex narrative” show like Big Love compared to the typical soap. Big Love explores a complicated relationship structure and story world – that of an illegal polygamist family in Salt Lake City, which necessarily brings about complex character relations, story arcs, and moreover a tricky approach to themes such as family, sex, religion and the law. Compared to a show like Big Love, soap-operas pale in comparison in terms of their themes and agendas.  Though they indeed have features in common, I feel that the two formats serve completely different pleasures – the escapist pleasure, and the thoughtful pleasure.



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