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Monday, May 22, 2006

Big Love, No Big Change. In a review of HBO's new series about a polygamous marriage, Big Love, The New Republic's TV Critic Lee Siegel reminds us that we shouldn't expect anything revolutionary from TV. As Siegal notes "Commercial society's deepest aspiration, after all, is a synthesis of total instinctual gratification with the preservation of the social order." In other words, commerical TV will tease and titillate with views of nondomestic sexuality, but it will never have a show that will actually undermine the current market-oriented, family-based social order. Although Siegal doesn't state it explicity, commerical TV, including HBO, exist to sell products. Siegal compares the impact that shows like Big Love have with the whispers of gossip about "the doings of a mysterious new family" in a small town.

In fact, constructing its shows along the lines of small-town gossip might be the secret of HBO's success. Gossip huddles most intensely in response to the strange, and the overlords of HBO are supremely gifted strangeness-mongers. For all the "cutting-edge" sophistication of shows such as Big Love, The Sopranos, Oz, or Six Feet Under, all explorations of the margins and the peripheries of American society, they have (or had) the same effect that gossip has. Their weirdness both normalizes your own most unsettling impulses and gets your vicarious wheels turning. But the latter effect is much stronger than the former.
Siegal notes that despite the unsettling images in these shows, they have a "normalization" function.

The most incomprehensible reaction to Big Love has been the complaint precisely about these shades and nuances that the actors bring into relief: the complaint that the show makes polygamy look boring. Making polygamy look like fun would hardly calm the slightly more legitimate concern about using a despicable social practice for the purpose of entertainment. (Anyway, polygamy cannot possibly be fun.) In fact, showing the dark side of gratification even as it allows viewers to gratify themselves vicariously is Big Love's essential success. And this is the brilliant mechanism at the heart of HBO's best shows. The Sopranos (now in the middle of its sixth season) is the grotesque spectacle of what happens when people immediately satisfy their basest instincts. Sex and the City exposed the loneliness and the instability that ensue when girls just want to have fun, for years on end. Six Feet Under and Oz were, in their very different ways, tales of self-indulgence and harsh--or brutal--consequences.

Even more than these other shows, Big Love is both the indictment of a commercialist ethos of gratification and the expression of it. As television grows less and less constrained in its imagination of the antinomian and the weird, you wonder where the emphasis will finally fall, on a new type of popular art or a new type of pandering to the appetites.

I am devoted to the Sopranos, but I found Big Love boring, so I haven't been watching it. My wife really enjoyed Sex and the City (which is now running on KTLA in a weird, bowdlerized version). So we continue to cough up the extra $18 a month for HBO. I would like to see some insightful TV criticism about the portrayals of fathers on TV. Bill Cosby was the last strong, competent father. In most contemporary TV shows, the mother is the resourceful, dominating character and the fathers are reduced to a secondary role as a lovable doofus or a sneaky adulterer.

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