Small Dramas of Big Love

In the first episode of Big Love, we are introduced to a fairly complex network of characters. Polygamist Bill Henrickson’s three wives are each very distinctive characters. In fact, they do not look like an assumed polygamist family at all – Barb has a sassy business woman sense of fashion while Margene behaves with little, if none of all the ‘obedience is the ultimate freedom’ ideal. We are already left with much curiosity in these extraordinary details.

 

However, like many narratively complex drama from HBO, the expansion of plot does not stop here. Roman Grant, Nicki the second wife’s father, is the powerful ‘prophet’ of the very mysterious Juniper Creek polygamist commune. If his relation to Nicki makes his introduction a fairly reasonable one, one cannot but brace him or herself for more drama when his involvement in Bill’s Home Plus hardware store business is revealed.

 

Big Love ignites a series of narrative questions through the close interrelations, yet sharp contrast between these characters and their background, all on top of an area that poses significant narrative interest (polygamist community, alternative marriage). It doesn’t leave out the soap-opera-like details either, many captured in the common backyard of the three wives’ houses.

 

In his article examining the aesthetic characteristics and formation of narrative complex drama, Michael Kackman quotes and affirms Jason Mittell’s idea that narrative complexity does not make quality TV. The pleasure from quality TV’s narrative complexity comes from the ‘operational aesthetic’ which provokes ‘spectatorial pleasure in the narration mechanism itself’ In the pilot episode of Big Love, the audience watches not only the alternatively vibrant characters such as Nicki Grant, but is further engaged by the construction of dramatic tension and interrelations between her husband and father. The audience indeed, as Neil Harris explains ‘marvel at how the writer pulled it off’.

 

More importantly, Kackman points out that such ‘operational aesthetic’ is enjoyable to fans and the audience because of its intertextual aesthetics. This is particularly relevant to Big Love as the audience, whether or not familiar with Mormon theologies, is essentially bound to ask questions and reflect on these cultural implications. Further examination of such cultural context reveal deeper social issues such as politics, alternative marriage, responsibility and family, religion and personalities, etc. As Kackman puts it, 

 

‘complexity isn’t just something we find in a text; it’s something we bring to a text – and our recognition of certain characters as meaningfully conflicted, their narrative and moral dilemmas agonisingly or beguilingly puzzling, is a cultural identification’.

 

The narrative development of Big Love revolves around layers of relationships between Bill Henrickson and his wives, but also the compound and its internal conflicts. Multiple themes run along the show with insights into the world of characters such as Bill’s children. Although plot lines such as Sarah’s personal struggles with sexuality and relationships contain hints and reflect back to how the polygamist lifestyle influences her, one needs a coherent understanding of their personal backgrounds to understand the evolving drama. As a narratively complex drama, Big Love holds certain characteristics usually associated with the lowbrow genre of daytime soap, in the manner that prevents ‘drop-in’ viewers. However, Jason Mittell points out that the ‘similarities’ between quality TV and daytime soap came from a historical development, as explained in the previous post, with the support of technological development, etc. He points out that in long-running serial soap operas much of the content comes from redundancy and repetition that shows low relevancy or evolvement in plot, however quality TV offers much more common experience of strategic placement of plot element and its later recognition. 

 

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