Big Love. Big goddamn, huge amounts of love. Or just kind of love. More like sex. A sex kind of love. Then again, the guy has kids? So is it love, or is it just reproduction? Reproduction for family’s sake? Who knows. Either way, polygamy is the central topic of HBO show Big Love, and it’s a thought provoking concept indeed.
I did feel slightly uneasy watching the pilot. The idea of polygamy doesn’t make much sense to me, as ignorant as that sounds, yet from what I have gathered from this episode it could be attributed to not growing up with it. Come to think of it, chances are if polygamy was regularly practiced amongst contemporary society I wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. Which is an interesting notion this show brings into light in quite a smooth and flowing way.
Polygamy is the vehicle for all central conflicts in the story. Between the three wives of Bill – Barbera, Nicolette and Margene. Between Bill and his position in society – first as a businessman and his ties to the mormon polygamists a few hours out into the country at ‘The Compound’, and later between himself and his position as a Senator in Season 5. And also, it seems, between Bill and his wives.
This conflict weaves itself into the story in very distinct ways throughout the pilot. We start to see traces of habits that each woman has adopted in order to cope with sharing the man they ‘love’. For example, we see Nicolette buying uncontrollably in an attempt to fulfil some sort of missing need. So too, Margene is relatively needy when compared to the other two wives, questioning Bill on whether he misses her more. Barb on the other hand seems relatively placid, however, without any children to her name it is obvious she is constantly saddened by this lack of progeny.
So too, Big Love opens up many other narrative threads to be followed in the coming episodes. As mentioned above, there is Nicolette’s uncontrolled spending. We also find out that Bill’s dad is sick – which leads to our first viewing of ‘The Compound’ and also gives way to Bill’s mother refusing to take him to the hospital in case they ask too many questions. (How illegal is ‘The Compound’ and this practice of polygamy? You get the sense that this community breeds like rabbits and in-breeding isn’t out of the question – as The Profit notes ‘we had 4000 at sacriment last week’ and young Rhonda explains ‘I’m married to The Profit now’).
As we later find out, Bill’s dad was poisoned with arsenic – clan wars are promptly queried. This sense of illegality and conflict between parties is furthered at the diner, where Bill’s daughter Sarah pauses when she hears that her co worker’s dad is a state trooper. On top of this, Bill’s brother is somewhat excommunicated from ‘The Compound’, Bill has just opened a new store, he has so far neglected to properly acknowledge that his son Ben has been named starter and he has also been persistent on getting Barb to ‘sign over’ her monthly cheque to him. Oh, and he only wears one wedding ring. How does that work? Especially considering we can see he isn’t virile enough to keep shopping himself around these three relationships night upon night.
Money problems, family problems, legal problems, emotional problems, spiritual problems. They are all here. It is indeed ‘narratively complex’ and I can see how the different narrative threads that provoke these conflicts would satisfy the audiences ‘sense of being surprised by what you know’, as Jason Mittell puts it, once they are answered.
As such, these threads go some way to ‘recruiting’ an audience. In its existence as a serial, the show ‘taps into a widely-shared and even primal set of narrative pleasures’ (Mittel, 2009). The audience comes to the party when we can relate to and appreciate the characters they see before them, thus an audience is likely to take an interest in what will happen next. Fortunately, Big Love offers a huge cast and a diverse range of characters. Unfortunately, this is where the show pays somewhat of an homage, intentionaly or not, to daytime television. Jason Mittell suggests ‘very few primetime shows seem to be directly influenced by daytime traditions’ and I would argue that this is one.
The pilot is a tad slow, and to quote Mittell, ‘the barriers to entry are quite high’. Here I believe Mittell to be referring to the aesthetic criteria of daytime television, audience level of engagement and investment into certain characters of the story world. While I am not suggesting that these characters are soap like, I do believe that with such a huge cast, it is quite possible for audiences to selectively view the series in a similar way to how one may view a day time series. Also, given the central vehicle of the story, polygamy, one must ask oneself whether one really want to learn more about this thing and become immersed and intimate with these people. However, this distinctiveness and ‘ability to indexically portray the difficult, nuanced world around us’ (Kakman, 2010) would also qualify this show for the title of ‘Quality TV’.
Despite my own feelings about this show, I think the pilot is extremely successful at establishing the diegetic world it exists within, and stating exactly where it stands in relation to polygamy. There’s the good polygamy of Bill and his family, and the bad polygamy of the compound – yet the distinction isn’t entirely clear, thus it would make for some interesting viewing to invest in this program going forward.
It brings up many telling questions. What is family? What is marriage? The fraught relationship between men and gods and as a result, the religion that surrounds them. Going forward, it would certainly be an interesting study to consider these themes and how the shows represent them as a kind of ‘operational aesthetic’, whereby one could intertextually study the images and visual representations of the above as a way of analysing ‘creative cultural reception practices’ (Kakman, 2010) – one would indeed hope that the result is ‘something broadly more meaningful’ (Kakman, 2010).
I would like to finish by examining the opening sequence of the show as a way of summarising the core focus of the show. I believe I have adequately delved into the key themes and narrative threads that come alive in the pilot, thus this summation is a way of trying to understand who the target audience/taste culture is that could potentially embrace this show.
The show begins with Bill in skates, on ice. Each of his wives swans around him on the ice, and they are all clothed in period garments. The distinction between each wife is not necessarily expressed, however, the use of their names as an introduction could be a device to make this distinction. Then, we watch as each of them links hands, the emphasis on their ring fingers. Staring longingly at each other as they spin in a circle (presumably with their hands still linked), the ice begins to crack and splits Bill from Margene and Nicolette, while Barb and Bill remain on one side. Now, we witness the four moving wistfully through white sheets, as if they are floating in the womb, and they each separately reunite with Bill, ending up at the dinner table finishing grace on top of a planet, more or less in space.
Now. Having watched both the pilot and an extract from the last episode of Season 5, the last season, it would seem that the following is being artfully represented. This ‘family’ as I will refer to them, at first skates peacefully on ice, separate from the country that surrounds the ice – the badness of ‘The Compound’. However, as their bond and proximity gets closer and their separate yet interlinked marriages are highlighted (the wedding rings), the ice – their utopia – can no longer hold the weight of their relationships, thus they must retreat to a more primitive existence. (Why exactly Barb and Bill are separated from Margene and Nicolette I am not entirely sure). Then, having retreated to the safety of the womb, in order for their polygamous existence to be maintained, we transcend the earthly and are shown how their bond through polygamy and religion (referenced through the speaking of grace) is the key to them being the masters of the world (their own world or the world itself). This is further bolstered by The Beach Boys track, ‘God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You’.
However, it could also be seen that their bond, while harmonious for the four of them, is futile and out to space, unable to be understood by earth and the world. Indeed, only God is able to comprehend this.
Where both these contentions stand in relation to Kakman’s suggestion of viewer’s using the show (in this case the opening) to ’embrac[e] the dream of a more complex world. Maybe, even, a more just one’ (Kakman, 2010), I am not entirely sure.
Thus the question remains, is this polygamous world one you want to embrace by watching this show? In a summary of the finale, Alan Sepinwall notes that ‘if you went into the finale with more affection for Bill, and/or the series, perhaps you were more touched by it all’ (Sepinwall, 2011). And it seems this is where it stands. Embrace the idea of polygamy and the Henrickson representation of this or treat the show as a dolled up version of Soap opera.
I will leave you to decide which of the two you subscribe to.
That being said, I’d love to hear another take on how to read Big Love.