What kind of show is Big Love? That is the question.
What a broad, strange thing to ask. Do we even think about this when we watch TV? Do we strain to think about what genre it is? What audience is going to watch it? How the identity of the network company alters our view of it? Do we care about how complex it is, or if television scholars consider it ‘quality’ TV?
For the most part, no. We don’t think of these things. We don’t care. We just watch what interests us. For some people this is shows that display ‘narrative complexity’, for others a simple soap opera will do the trick. We why have to categorise them all is beyond me, but okay.
A commenter on Michael Kackman’s piece on Flow TV, Jeffrey Sconce, highlights how unusual it is that we equate complexity with quality:
“…the unexamined equation of quality with complexity is a particularly strange move for television studies to make. It reached its apotheosis in the Steve Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You” book from a few years back, with its rather hilarious charts demonstrating how much more complex and thus worthy “The Sopranos” were in relation to “Starsky and Hutch.” Complex TV is apparently better because it forces you to make more neural connections, in the same way that video games are good for hand-eye coordination!”
Considering Big Love was Brian’s choice this week on our discussion on quality TV, I suppose it falls under this category. Michael Kackman loosely describes such narrative complex programs as:
“those that blend episodic and serial narrative techniques, build upon extended back stories of both plot and character, are often self-consciously aesthetically experimental, and which promote a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure in the mechanisms of narration itself.”
I would say that Big Love is more of an episodic structure than a serial. The focus is on the overall movement of the plot, rather than the small conflicts and resolutions that take place episode-to-episode. The main driving force of the show is that the family situation is so unusual: the main character has three wives, and has had children with all of these wives, yet they all live together as one family entity. This challenges the notion of the typical American nuclear family, and the institution of marriage, while also strengthening the idea that the Big love family is unusual, and that the normal family functions better (*statement open to criticism*).
In terms of genre, I like how Jason Mittel puts it:
“My concept of genre is as a cultural category bearing assumptions and associations – and probably no television genre is as laden with assumptions as the soap opera!”
Sure, soap opera is a fairly solid genre with all of its respective assumptions, but this notion of complex television shows… is this a genre in itself? Given what Mittel describes as the function of soap operas – “immersive, slow-paced, dialogue-driven melodramatic storytelling that rewards long-term accrual of character knowledge” – it would appear that there is a parallel between soap operas and these long form complex narratives.
In Big Love, we rely a lot on what the dialogue provides us: it demonstrates the jealousy of the wives, the feelings of the children, the strong stance on polygamous marriage that Bill Henrickson has. It is also true of Big Love that viewers are rewarded with ‘long-term accrual of character knowledge’. Watching the final episode of the series after watching the pilot, I actually began to tear up when Bill was dying and looking up at all of his wives. I was able to see from the pilot episode that he had feelings for them all and loved them deeply, and it was truly rewarding to see how far they had come as a family. It would have been even more rewarding had I seen all the problems they had encountered between the first and last episodes as well, I am sure.
So, to answer my original question, Big Love is an HBO branded (and therefore a “quality”) television show. The brand literally does carry ‘baggage’ with it, and works to form the genre along with the show’s specifics. While it shares aspects of soap operas and melodramas, the way in which it blends episodic and serial structuring, as well as its position within the HBO brand leaves it categorised along with other shows of narrative complexity. I would also argue that this is also due to the time in which it was created, as long form complex narratives have been developed and studied at large during the early 21st century.
Michael Kackman, 2010, ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’
Jason Mittel, 2009, ‘More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality’