Thursday, March 30, 2006

Big Love (1x01-1x02)

At this point, HBO's got such a good track history that I'll at least sample anything they put on. Combine that with an intriuging premise and a great cast, and Big Love was a must sample show for me.

The first thing that's striking about the show is the opening credits sequence. It's a great looking sequence that does a nice job of setting up the show's basic plot, all set to one of the greatest songs ever, "God Only Knows." However, I'm a bit uneasy about the choice of theme song. Obviously it's a great song, but I feel like it's a song you have to earn. Watch Boogie Nights and you see two and a half hours of growth for the characters, and by the end of that journey, they've earned the right to use "God Only Knows." To have it as your opening credits feels wrong somehow.

But, looking at the names in the credits took my mind off that. We've got Bill Paxton, a pretty big caliber actor for a TV show, but what got my attention was two Twin Peaks veterans, Grace Zabriskie and Harry Dean Stanton. On top of that, there's PT Anderson regular Melora Walters, who created one of my favorite film characters with Magnolia's Claudia. And then there's Chloe Sevigny, who's been great in countless indie films. On top of that, we've got Lily Kane and Mac from Veronica Mars. So, that's a nice bunch right there.

The show itself has an odd feeling, largely because the world it's depicting is so close to ours, but at the same time off. The two best HBO shows, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, used this same basic idea, an ordinary family but with a twist. However, in the case of Big Love, the family isn't ordinary. The sort of conflicts they've got aren't common things, and I think that's the biggest issue with the show. They have problems that are really specific to the world of polygamy, and it's hard to empathize with their issues.

The genius of SFU and The Sopranos was that its setting, either the mob or the funeral home, raises the stakes on ordinary problems. So, trouble at work for Tony could mean coming home dead, but here there's no large stakes, it's all very small scale, petty problems. The biggest issue is the jealousy between the wives, all competing for Bill's attention. The problem with this is that so far we've got no sense of who Bill is. All he does is have sex with his wives. The life he leads seems to be almost hellish, constantly being asked for stuff, walking around a zoo of kids that he seems to have no relationship with.

It's always a problem to have too many kids on a show, and here we've got a whole bunch who seem to be there just because, and that takes away from the sense of any core family. Everyone's so busy running around doing their stuff that we never get the sense that these people actually like each other. And the way the show plays, it's like this is a co-operative family, and other than Barbara, his wives come off more as his children than as spouses.

I think that's partially a problem of just dumping us into the story with no real background. We get a sense of Bill and Barbara having a real, loving marriage, and the other wives seems superfluous. It's implied that when Barbara couldn't have any more kids, she allowed him to take Nikki as a wife, but I'd like to explore those issues more, how did they come to live this life? I can understand the desire to get right into the action, but I think that's such an essential part of their lives that we need to know it.

There was an episode of Six Feet Under with Daddy, a guy with a polygamist family, and there you got the sense of them as a functioning cooperative, you could understand why someone would choose to live that way. You don't get that here, it just seems like a really awful arrangement. That's because the show doesn't give anyone a moment of downtime, a moment to show why they're living this life in the first place.

In films, there's a big emphasis on characters acheiving their goals. For a movie, this is usually a fairly concrete goal, like beating the bad guy or winning a game. In a TV show, you need a more extistential goal, something that can carry your character through the whole series. So, for Buffy, the goal is to have the opportunity to live a normal life and not be a slayer. That's the thing that keeps the narrative moving forward, that all the character development is in reaction to.

For Six Feet Under, it's Nate's search for meaning in life that makes the show more than just a soap opera. There's something deeper underlying Nate's decisions than just the fact that another episode had to happen. My favorite arcs on that show are Nate's, Brenda's and Claire's, because all three characters have a deep struggle to find meaning for themselves that overwhelms any of the personal conflict they go through along the way. Compare that to David who has much more limited aspirations, and by extension, the most consistently soap operatic plot lines.

The problem with Big Love is that no one seems to have any ultimate goals. The issues with the compound provide some conflict, but I get no sense of an ultimate direction for the series. Implicitly there's the question of whether the family can survive, but that's not really the sort of thing that can make for a fulfilling series in the long term. So, without this overall goal, the series can fall prey to the worst of soap opera, decisions that come out of a need to just do another episode rather than out of logical character development.

The one character who does have a lot of interesting issues is Barbara. She's clearly very ambivalent about being in this family. She loves Bill, but doesn't seem to want to play mother to not just her family, but also the two other wives. She's not as into the doctrine as the others, and if Bill views her as his real wife, would everything collapse if she were to leave the family unit?

The other interesting arc is the story with Sarah and her Mormon friend at the restaurant. She's another person who's in an ambiguous position with regards to the family, and there's a lot of potential in further exploring her feelings about the way she lives.

I think one of the problems is that the show has such a big cast, and with three wives to handle, it's tough to develop people. In the long term, this is probably good, but most shows usually start with a small core for a reason.

So, I'm going to give it a few more episodes, but so far I haven't been that impressed with the show. I need a better idea of what it's going to do on a week to week basis to get an idea of its overall quality.

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