Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dear Chloë: How About Some Love for Big Love?

It was awful this season, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not allowed to say that! [Gasps.] It was very telenovela. I feel like it kind of got away from itself. The whole political campaign seemed to me very farfetched. I mean, I love the show, I love my character, I love the writing, but I felt like they were really pushing it this last season.....It’s too much. It’s too much. But I hope the fans will stick with us and tune in next year. There’s a lot of people who really love this season, surprisingly.
- Chloë Sevigny discussing season 4 of Big Love with The A.V. Club

I like Chloë Sevigny, and Nickie is probably my favorite character on Big Love. I have to wonder, though, how in-touch with the show's premise, the genre she's working in, and the reasons for Big Love's popularity Ms. Sevigny can be. What, I wonder, does Chloë Sevigny think people watch Big Love for? 

Excuse me? 

First off, I'm not sure how much Spanish language television Ms. Sevigny has been exposed to. I suspect it's not a hell of a lot, or she wouldn't be comparing Big Love to a telenovela. There's absolutely no similarity between the structure of Big Love and the classic telenovela, which airs nightly, has a finite story arc which is limited to one season, and more often than not revolves around one particular protagonist in a struggle to find happiness and love.

What Big Love is like, on the other hand, is a traditional, American, night time serial. It's got all the elements: a weekly format that runs from season to season, multi-layered story structure revolving around a whole cast of characters, relationships, family drama, intrigue, wheeling and dealing in the world of business, secrets, lies and a host of moral and ethical conflicts. It's got supposedly good guys who aren't always likable, and bad guys who we can't help but sympathize with from time to time. 

Big Love is more Knots Landing (with a touch of Twin Peaks, perhaps) than it is Marimar. 

The comment comparing Big Love to a telenovela is clearly meant as a slight. Wake-up call, Ms. Sevigny: you're not on a telenovela, but you're definitely on an American night time soap, and the two are closely related.  You may have convinced yourself that you were working on something "BETTER" or "MORE IMPORTANT" than that, but you're not. Serial drama - it's a genre, like any other. It can be as good or as bad as the writing and acting associated with it. You're a good actress, and Big Love is better than most shows on television, but know this: it's a soap opera, and has been since its debut.

Too Much?

Ms. Sevigny notes that season 4's political campaign was "farfetched." I'd challenge her to consider our last presidential election: One candidate was embroiled in a paternity scandal involving a woman other than his wife and a toddler who he refused to acknowledge as his child. Another candidate was a woman who many will always think of as the doggedly loyal wife of an ex-president who abused his position of authority by having an affair with a White House intern. A vice presidential candidate, who actively promoted an abstinence-only sex ed curriculum in the public school system, was forced to admit her teen daughter was in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy. This person was also surrounded by controversy involving the parentage of her youngest child, allegations of abuses of power during her tenure as governor of Alaska, and misappropriation of GOP funds. We even had a Mormom in the race.

If you'd told me, just ten years ago, that the U.S. would have in the White House a president who was mixed-race, with a Kenyan father, the child of divorce, had spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and had a name like Barack Obama...I would have thought it a far-fetched fantasy.

Bill Henrickson is running for office and he has a secret. Big deal.  Forget his three women and sets of children he supports on his own and longs to publicly acknowledge as his own; it's the real life American political landscape that's often unbelievable and "too much." Marion Barry, anyone? 

It's interesting, though, that Ms. Sevigny considers season 4 of Big Love to be the point where the show became "far-fetched." Think about the entire premise of the series, starting from season 1, and it's clear the audience is expected to suspend disbelief:

No one in a conservative, Mormon community seems to think there's anything even remotely odd about two women - one who is clearly from the compound - who have small children, but no husbands around

No one questions how two single moms can afford to own or rent large, rambling houses or drive nice cars

No thinks it's odd that these two women also happen to live in houses on either side of a well-known public figure and that he and his family seem to spend a lot of time with these single women

No one has ever taken note that the three houses have an open plan and a communal yard in the back - not the mail man or the meter reader or a nosy neighbor 

No business owners in this sleepy community notice that, when Nickie or Margene or Barbara enter their stores, it's never to buy just one loaf of bread or two steaks, but enough to feed an army

With three houses full of children, no one ever slips and calls Bill "Daddy" in public..and I guess none of the kids actually look like Bill, even though he's their father

No one in the community seems to have taken note of the several times refugees from the compound have landed on Bill's doorstep, en masse

The public seems to buy in to the whole thing about Bill, who is the face of Home Plus, being a regular, old LDS member, but no one seems to notice that he doesn't actually go to temple, and neither do any of his family members

Big Love is full of unbelievable details. Newsflash: it doesn't matter. No one is watching this show for its accurate depiction of the real world we live in. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who watches this show and says, "Wow...Barbara's relationship to the sisterwife who nursed her through cancer is EXACTLY like my relationship to the sisterwife who cured my lumbago" or "That's EXACTLY like the time I was forced out of my community at 16 by someone who feared I was a prophet!"

Why we watch

Soaps are a funny medium. They're often equal parts slice-of-life and  bigger-than-life. Even in the days when soaps dealt only with very real, human situations, things like a favorite character's death, the birth of a baby, and the level of devotion between star-crossed lovers were presented on a grandiose scale. People didn't just die - they died beautiful deaths, in the arms of their beloved, after uttering moving, coherent, meaningful speeches....and looking like a million bucks, the whole time. Babies weren't just born - their mothers went into premature labor after sustaining great trauma, struggled for life and were saved at the last minute by emergency blood transfusions from their REAL birthfather. Young lovers didn't just hug and kiss and promise to be true: they broke into abandoned churches and took secret vows, hours before the young "groom" went off to Vietnam. 

Soap viewers? We love this stuff. And Big Love is full of it, if you know where to look: Nickie's late-onset adolescence, Wanda's madness, J.J.'s creepiness, Lois slicing off of an enemy's arm to defend her son (thank God for the great Grace Zabriskie!) What are these stories really about? The sadness of a lost childhood, post traumatic stress, hunger for power, and mother-love. Slices of life displayed in a bigger-than-life packages. 

Strip away the far-fetched elements of season 4: the political campaign, the embryo implants, the Mexico debacle, and what you have is simple. It's a story about an ambitious man, an extended family coping with dysfunction, women who have no control over reproduction, people who just want to be accepted, even tough they're different, and a world where "different" is always "wrong." 

Ms. Sevigny: Big Love season 4 was awesome.


Anonymous said...

As reported by Michael Ausiello in his column, Sevigny has issued a mea culpa. No doubt a smart career move.

I haven't got around to season 4. Loved the first three.

Snapper said...

Yes, she's backtracked, but it's clear she meant what she said. She's entitled to her opinion, of course, but I do think she may be a little off-track concerning what it is people watch this show for.