Showcase Post 1: Quality TV – “Big Love”
In his article How TV Met Narrative Sophistication, Craig Jacobsen writes that the increasingly complex use of structure in television “demonstrates network broadcast television’s increasing sophistication as a narrative medium.” He continues that “[g]iven network television’s conservative approach to narrative structure…any trend toward more complex narrative forms demands attention.” Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer’s series Big Love serves as a fantastic case-study for exploring this increased sophistication within television programming, also known as “quality TV.”
Big Love certainly fits under the umbrella of complex narrative television. 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.”
In his article Making Sense of Soaps Robert C. Allen writes that “television serials together constitute one of the most popular and resilient forms of storytelling ever devices.” He continues that “television serials are linked – in the way they are constructed, broadcast and watched – by their distinctive serial narrational structure.” (p242) Although the term “television serial” is most closely related to the soap opera, Allen’s description of the television serial certainly features in many of the shows defined as “quality TV”. So where does Big Love fit into this?
Big Love certainly represents all the things 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. Furthermore, Jacobsen writes that complex narrative television is primarily concerned with “complex form rather than novel content.” Big Love on the other hand does little in the way of structural experimentation – but rather unfolds before us chronologically, as a soap-opera typically would.
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.
InThe Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling Mittell also disputes the notion of legitimacy in stating that instead of comparing “quality TV” shows to notions of high-art instead of low-form entertainment such as the television soap, “quality TV” should rather be defined “through careful analysis of television itself rather than holding onto cross-media metaphors of aspiration and legitimation.”
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. Mittell’s statement that “[t]he idea that viewers would want to watch—and rewatch—a television series in strict chronology and collectively document their discoveries with a group of strangers was once laughable” highlights what I feel to be the distinction between the two genres. Where I would never dream of rewatching a favourite season of a soap – “quality TV” shows such as Big Love I can visit again and again.
Furthermore, Big Love has a unique, 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. Although Jacobsen believes we should preference form over content in our assessment of “quality TV”, I can’t help but think that compared to a show like Big Love, soap-operas pale in comparison in terms of their themes and content. Though they indeed have features in common, I feel that the two formats serve completely different pleasures – the escapist pleasure, in which we frequently tune out and disengage and the thoughtful pleasure, in which we fully engage with the show’s characters, the plot, and its formal structure.
Works cited: (in the order that they appeared in this post):
i. Craig Jacobsen
How TV Met Narrative Sophistication
ii. Jason Mittell.
Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television
from “Project Muse”
iii. Robert C. Allen
Making Sense of Soaps
from ‘The Television Studies Reader’ (2004, p242)
iv. Jason Mittell
More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality
v. Michael Kackman.
Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity
vi. Jason Mittell
The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling