Big Love

Big Love

I just finished watching the HBO series Big Love. Like many other people my television viewing habits and preferences have changed. Now I prefer multi-season series, and dramas rather than comedies. Just as good books do, newer television series delve deeply into people, places, and ideas. I can immerse myself, go somewhere and be only there, enveloped in someone else’s story that somehow becomes my own. Live theater sometimes offers the same experience, but not film, not anymore. Movies are mostly unsubtle sensational offerings, filled with titillation, virtue signaling, and strangely unsatisfying, often violently provoked catharses. I make exceptions for French rom-coms and the occasional art house film that looks closely and slowly at a very, very small slice of life. But in general two hours is not enough time to meaningfully explore the color, complexities, and nuances that most interest me. I like to get to know people. Two hours is not enough time for me to spend with a good story either, so I binge. 

Big Love succeeds for many reasons. The characters are complex and well drawn and they grow throughout the series, compellingly. Their situations and relationships effectively develop other arcs – of ideas and time-and-place – that occur at many scales, layered over each episode, each season, and again over the whole series. I had a path, too, through the five seasons, experiencing ups-and-downs and turnarounds in my loyalties, understandings, appreciations, and beliefs. 

The script is evocative, and that’s down to its inspired use of language. Dialogue advances the varied stories and arcs well enough, but even more it is a remarkable capture of Mormon politeness, of an old-fashioned civility which still structures daily life, especially evident when characters disagree. The dialogue also provides an audible connection to Utah’s pioneer past through persistent speaking protocols and idioms, even those of the most ‘modern’ characters. The speech patterns of the fundamentalist sect prophets are deliciously rich – learned and flawlessly composed, biblical, rhetorical, and sonorous, even more so when threatening. I encountered these linguistic mannerisms like ruins that reveal and keep the past in present time.

The acting is also remarkable. Every actor brings his or her character to life, believably and seamlessly in relation to the others. I found them all knowable and familiar. Though their circumstances may be alien, the people of Big Love are not. In an unusual way the series reminded me of good science fiction or futuristic writing: just enough of present time intact to keep you off balance, attentive, apprehensive. The main characters have contemporary psychologies and recognizable public selves even as the unimaginable practice of polygamy structures their private world. This complexity of personhood is quite a contrast to the caricatures presented in The Book of Mormon musical, which for me, othered Mormons by clothing them only in absurd inconsistencies (which are found in most belief systems, religious and secular, if truth be told). 

All the optics of the production – cinematography, costumes, props, scenics – enhance the montage-like contemporaneity of now-and-then as they also demarcate three branches of Mormonism. The rural fundamentalist sects rooted in the nineteenth century vie with the more modern and suburban Church of Latter Day Saints culturally, politically, and economically as well as theologically. (Really, the secular conflicts are proxies for the doctrinal struggle to define the faith.) The in-fighting eventually engulfs the main characters as they attempt to reconcile these two diverging belief systems into a new, third, breakaway lifestyle and church that borrows from both. The beautifully constructed visual tapestry is embellished by idiosyncratic cultural details, like foods on the table (jello parfait, chicken a la king, carrot raisin salad), and farmstead housekeeping practices (daily ironing, sewing, laundry, and cooking for a crowd), that give the viewer enough social distance to gain perspective. 

The series builds to a traditional climax involving the main character Bill, which I won’t spoil. I’d rather discuss his epiphany which became mine, and put the whole series in panorama, underscoring the valiant struggles of religion to support and protect and heal us, even as we outgrow the teachings that purport to do so. The theme of Big Love is family, and I think it fair to say that family is also the foundational concept of Mormonism. Mormons’ primary spiritual purpose is to bring new souls into the world on behalf of Heavenly Father, forever enlarging his flock. The faithful’s supreme reward is an eternity filled with these very people, sealed to each other in peace and health and love forever. We naturally think of doctrine as delimiting life and culture through its edicts, prescriptions, and proscriptions. But at the end, Bill grasps the fundamental, omnificent, human power of family to define and create us, and realizes that this truth gave birth to his religion, even as Mormonism shapes him. Family is the most consequential of our human arrangements; no wonder that we have called on the gods to sanction and promote its most protective and sustaining variants. Big Love, indeed.

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