Whilst HBO’s Big Love falls into the realm of ‘quality’ television, it highlights the influences that other genres may have on shaping a program. In the case of Big Love the heightened melodrama is reminiscent of that of soap operas, but at the same time the recurring themes of faith, gender and power are more reminiscent of that of ‘quality’ television. Watching the pilot episode of Big Love we were introduced to Bill Hendrickson and his family – which consists of his three wives and his various children. The way that the three ‘sister-wives’ fight for Bills love and affection, and the subtle jealously between them, reminded me of the usual relationship dramas found in soap operas. However it was obvious there was depth to the characters that was slowly unpacked, and viewing more episodes would no doubt have revealed great character development and change.
TV critic Michael Kackman suggests that melodrama is in some ways a necessary component of quality television, and should not only be thought of as a trait of ‘low brow’ television. He believes that within quality television melodrama is important “because of its investment in its immediate cultural environs, that is to say, not just its formal play, but its engagement of cultural tensions, instabilities, and anxieties” (Kackman 2010). The way melodrama is used to highlight and resolve social tensions, make it a central focus of serial narrativization. He cites that “for melodrama, as Christine Gledhill wrote, “draws into a public arena desires, fears, values and identities which lie beneath the surface of the publicly acknowledged world.” (Kackman, 2010). From a glimpse into the very first episode of the show, and then the season 5 finale we see the way this melodrama is used to draw focus to religious and social issues, both personal and public. Bill’s first wife Barb disillusionment with her marriage and faith, coinciding with Bill’s public battle to legalize polygamy is just one example of this.
Perhaps what best defines Big Love as a quality television program is the way it provides insight into another culture and way of life, challenging questions of gender roles and religion in society in a complex way. Michael Kackman argues that by watching quality television “we’re not just appreciating narrative craft. Instead, we’re embracing the dream of a more complex world. Maybe, even, a more just one” (Kackman, 2010). This kind of viewing experience is far different to that of a soap opera where a viewer may tune in an out, even months apart and be able to pick up on the general plot line, one that generally doesn’t raise these sort of big picture issues.
The shows take on Mormonism and polygamy as central literary devices work favorably in terms of narrative complexity. Television critic Myles McNutt believes the shows success in the first season can be attributed to this, arguing that “Part of the show’s impact in its first season was the idea that these people [the characters] have beliefs that we don’t understand, and more importantly that we’re not being shown the moments where those beliefs came into being. We’re not shown Bill Henrickson receiving his testament and taking a second wife, we’re shown Bill Henrickson getting settled into suburbia with his three wives, dropping us into a world that we’re not expected to understand” (McNutt, 2010).
The narrative complexity of Big Love is seen through the multiple themes explored, including gender politics, and the institutions of family and marriage. It is worth noting that narrative complexity itself is not a genre, a point highlighted my Jason Mittel – “I was careful not to call it a “genre,” as I believe it crosses most primetime genres and operates at the more macro-level of narrational mode” (Mittel, 2009). Big Love cleverly blends episodic and serial techniques that build upon the back-stories of the plot and the character. This is characteristic of complex narratives, that are “often self-consciously aesthetically experimental, and which promote a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure in the mechanisms of narration itself” (Kackman 2010). These serial techniques allow for a complex narrative to ensue in which the audience can make subtle readings of the text at hand.
Issues of gender roles are inescapable throughout the series. The concept of plural marriage “is already one that puts women in a position of lesser status…by making the husband the head of the family spiritually, his wives are expected to follow absolutely and without question”. (Suarez, 2011). However interestingly, while the Hendrickson family is seen as conservative in comparison to the rest of society it lives in it, it is seen as moderate and progressive compared to the more traditional polygamists of Juniper Creek. The focus of the role of religion in everyday life is worth considering. This ties in with “HBO’s promise of something different and simultaneously American” (Luckett, 2006). Basing the show around a fringe, fundamentalist polygamist group detached from the LSD (Mormon Church) the show “presents a religion that derives from American millenialist tendencies and emphasizes American individualism and non-conformism” (Luckett, 2006).