Friday, February 13, 2009

Big Love: 3x01-3x04

Big Love is a show I’ve always had mixed feelings about. That cast is full of actors I love, and the premise raises a lot of potentially interesting issues. In its first two seasons, the show had some really strong episodes, but never made the jump to great TV. The ‘Golden Age’ HBO series, like The Sopranos or The Wire or even Six Feet Under, all did things that you didn’t see anywhere else. They were full of incredibly rich characters and explored huge issues within their continous, novelistic plots.

In short, those shows justified the “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” tagline because they are like virtually nothing else in the history of TV. When I see people call Showtime the new HBO, I cringe because all the Showtime shows I’ve seen are essentially edgier versions of classic network shows, and like a lot of FX shows, they’re more interested in being edgy for edginess’s sake than in building compelling stories and world. Weeds is a particular offender in this respect, but Dexter also suffers from the fact that at its core, it’s a CBS style procedural. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being like a TV show, Buffy is very much a TV show in style and presentation, but the writing kept the characters evolving and that’s what made it such a great series.

In the post Sopranos era, there’s a lot of highly serialized shows, but there’s very few shows that enact real change in their universes. Shows like Rescue Me, 24 or Alias are full of ongoing plots that make them seemingly incomprehensible to new viewers, but really what they’re doing is variations on a theme. 24 will always spin back to the mole, the nuclear bomb, Jack going rogue, just as Alias perpetually wound its way back to Sydney working for Sloane. Rescue Me has extended stories, but after the stories resolve themselves, the characters are essentially the same as they were before. The problem with this is that you wind up with a merry go round of couplings and scenarios such that by the fifth or sixth season, everyone has fucked everyone, and there’s nowhere left to go.

But, the best shows only get better as time goes on. To some extent, The Sopranos repeated itself narratively. The structural plot of all the middle seasons can be summed up as a new family member comes into town and causes problems for Tony until he crosses the line and has to be whacked at the end of the season. It happens to Richie, Jackie, Ralphie, Tony B, and to some extent, Vito. But, within the repetition, there’s an evolution of Tony’s character, and a deepening of our understanding of his world and what’s going on around him. The weight of what’s happened weighs on the character in believable ways. You can’t honestly believe that Jack Bauer has been through all he’s been through on the series, but Tony’s continuity seems plausible.

All of this is a way of saying that what separates good shows from great shows is the capacity for real change, to deepen and expand the universe as time passes. Big Love’s third season is doing just that, telling its best stories yet in a really focused, intense opening run.

Part of what makes the season work so far is the way that Roman’s trial has served as a structural centerpiece for the whole show. One of the things that’s hurt the show in the past is that the stakes are smaller than we’re used to on TV. At their core, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are just about a family and their struggles to deal with the world, but the backdrop of the mob and the gravty of the funeral home helped make those shows feel deeper and more significant. In the case of Big Love, the stories at home can sometimes feel frivolous or soapy without that sort of heavy grounding. I hate to say that on some level, because that sort of if it’s not life or death, it doesn’t matter logic is what contributes to our glut of doctor and lawyer shows, but that’s the way it feels.

But, the presence of Roman’s trial as this looming threat for the family makes it easier to appreciate the less dramatic b plots. It also alleviates the disconnect between the compound and Bill’s family that has caused problems for the show in the past. The family’s courtship of Ana is a great story, but is it a strong enough centerpiece to unite all the show’s disparate characters? Perhaps not, but now it doesn’t have to carry that load, it was able to simmer in the background, amidst a variety of other stories.

That’s not to say that the Roman trial was even the most compelling story on the show. What’s interesting is how it’s forced the other characters in to different and challenging positions. Nikki in particular has gotten stronger material this year than ever before. I find it a little implausible that Roman Grant’s daughter could so easily infiltrate the D.A’s office under an assumed name, but once you get past that, her story there is great. For one, it’s always interesting to see her drop the Compound style and try to fit in with regular society. But, it also forces her to explicitly confront the outside world’s view of the compound without being able to instantly snap back with her usual defenses. The condemnation simmers there, and by the end, she’s forced to confront the fact that she is a victim of the abuse that Roman is being tried for, and no matter how much she may love him, her father is guilty of the crime. And, her own feelings about the marriage she was forced in to prevent her from spouting the party line defense.

The high point of this is her tearful collapse on to the D.A’s shoulder after she sees the photos of her in the Joy Book. But, her loyalty to her family is such that she still assists in sabotaging the case. I like the way the arc played out, the way her inevitable assistance to Roman is juxtaposed against our desire for her to speak out against him. I want her to move into our world more and leave those old values behind, but she can’t do that so easily. The Sopranos was brilliant at juxtaposing our hopes for what would happen against the characters’ inevitable moral weakness and this story pulls off something similar. And, Sevigny thankfully gets to explore new dimensions of the character as time passes. The revelation that she was married once before is the perfect retcon, something that adds new depth to a character without contradicting anything that’s come before. In act, it goes a good way to explaining why she’d be willing to move off the compound in the first place.

Our moral alignment with respect to the various characters is one of the most complex things about the series. Watching it, I can’t relate at all to Bill and his family’s belief that the reason they’re on the Earth is to churn out kids and have more and more wives. The revelation that Nikki’s on birth control made her even more sympathetic to me because I think it’s perfectly understandable that she would want to have more control over her own life. Her work at the D.A’s office may have began as espionage, but I think by the end she legitimately enjoys it.

So, the question arises, are we supposed to believe in what Bill and his family are trying to achieve? Because they’re the main characters of the series, ostensibly we’re behind them in their quest to woo Ana. Certainly it was tough to watch Nikki and Margene squabbling during their “date” with Ana because I wanted Ana to like them. And yet, at the same time, the values of their world are so distorted and incompatible with how I see things that my attachment and general positive feelings towards the characters are juxtaposed with this dislike of their value system.

That’s why I like that the show has confronted this head on, both with Sarah’s total rejection of her parents’ lifestyle, and with Nancy and Lois’s shock at Bill’s plan to take on a fourth wife. Sarah is one of the most interesting characters in this season, clearly just biding her time before she can get out and move on. She started out growing up in a ‘normal’ family, how would she feel when all of a sudden she winds up in a zoo of children and a messy hierarchy of three “mothers” looking out for her? What control does she have when they seek to add another wife. She’s got none, and that makes her want to get as far away from that world as possible.

Throughout the series, I’ve found the kids’ storylines among the most interesting, and the addition of the bizarre compound people gone wild flophouse adds another layer. Frankie and his fellow Compounders seem to have a kind of “what happens outside the compound stays outside the compound” mentality and are living it up. I’m not sure how that jives with one of the girls chastising Sarah for dressing in a way that pleases Satan, but I suppose that’s the bizarre moral world they live in.

The central question of the season seems to be how much can you compromise on the road to salvation? Roman and his crew use coercion, threats of violence and bribery to ensure that he goes free. Bill’s entire casino business is a way to preserve his lifestyle and protect him from risk. But, is he morally compromising the very sanctity he’s hoping to preserve? If he sacrifices those morals, does that mean he’s just a guy with a bunch of wives because he can? That’s the question raised by Nancy in the last episode, the idea that he’s dabbling in this and is adding another wife because he can.

There’s no easy answers there, but this season’s first four episodes have been stronger than any in the show’s prior history. I’m hoping they can keep that up without Roman’s trial around to act as a structuring element. At least there’s a bunch of other interesting plots in development that will be able to pick up the slack.

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