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April 22, 2006

Misunderstanding Big Love

By Ezra

This is a very weird column by Will Saletan on Big Love:

It's hard to sustain a polygamous household. It's not for everybody. Most of us are too jealous. But some people aren't, the show suggests. And for them, maybe we should tolerate or legalize plural marriage.

So, let's look at how this on-air experiment is going. Talented writers and actors are trying to make plausible the idea that American women raised in an age of sexual egalitarianism are bighearted enough to share a husband.

Saletan then goes on to list instances in the show that prove pleasant polygamous relationships inevitably crumble amidst jealousy, hierarchy, and wifely overreach. But read that line again: instances from the show. Saletan's arguing that a team of committed, capable screenwriters wanted to normalize polygamy and argue for its viability, but accidentally came up with a program proving just the opposite. In which case, there are three explanations:

1) The writers are talented, but polygamy is so inherently unworkable that even a fantasy-land conception somehow mutates into a tangled web of interpersonal conflict and sexual unworkability;

2) The writers are not talented, and simply failed in their quest;

3) The writers are not trying to burnish polygamy's credentials, never sought to show it as workable, and Saletan is simply assuming intentions that aren't there, which explains why the narratives concocted by the writing staff all argue against polygamy's desirability.

Which seems likeliest to you?

April 22, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

Most likely is that Will Saletan is full of crap. Shows like Big Love are designed to have Drama!. Drama is many things, including conflict, resolution, mystery, tangled webs, misdirection, etc.

Drama draws viewers, which is surely was the producers and network are after. TNT advises us that they are the Drama network - for free.

I don't take HBO, so I can't comment on BL. But I really doubt their intention to make polygamy look really good, or really really bad. Intentional slant interferes with 'Drama' because the viewer can sense that a final conclusion is pre-ordained.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 22, 2006 4:47:43 PM

Okay, I haven't watched the show, but have it available with On Demand HBO, so will try to catch up between playoff games. But polygamy is obviously workable, it has worked for millenia. It may only be workable in a illiberal misogynistic society. Or may be possible in more enlightened circumstances. We haven't experimented enough.

But I think writers rarely have such clear purposes and goals. I cannot clearly say what the Sopranos or Six Feet Under were trying to say. Writers create worlds and characters and then interact with them. There are both surprising constraints and opportunities discovered in the process. "Messages are for Western Union".

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 22, 2006 4:49:21 PM

More: If BL finds a big audience that stays with it, perhaps the second season can move from polygyny - the form of polygamy depicted in BL - to polyandry (the other form of polygamy - with one woman and several husbands). That sounds more interesting from the Drama viewpoint.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 22, 2006 5:00:20 PM

Or 4) Polyamory is so outside the experience of the writers that they have no frame of reference for writing about it; they couldn't write well about it if they wanted to. But you know, most writers do *research* when they don't know what they are talking about.

Posted by: ilsa | Apr 22, 2006 5:18:52 PM

Isn't this why they call him "lord saletan"? Because he so moronically and determindly comments on things he doesn't bother to try to understand? Plus isn't this part of the generic aim of older, unattractive white guys (not hollywood types but beltway and pundit types) to hope that money will finally enable them to get the extra women that their looks, energy, and charm no longer entitle them to?

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Apr 22, 2006 5:21:17 PM

I think Saletan is ascribing motives that aren't there. You could view David's storyline from Six Feet Under as an argument for or against homosexuality, or the Sopranos' marriage as an argument for or against heterosexual marriage if you were so inclined. And that's what's at issue. Saletan is apparently "so inclined".

Posted by: Greg | Apr 22, 2006 5:46:26 PM

"Which seems likeliest to you?"

I think it's pretty obvious that the BL writers are pushing polygamy. And, of course, what animal species is polygamous? Bears.

What we have here is yet another example of Hollywood trying to push its bear agenda on the rest of us.

------

And on the actual topic of Ezra's post, I'll note that this type of confusion in differentiating between what the protagonists of a work of narrative art are espousing, and what the work itself is espousing is a confusion that seems to bedevil a large percentage of civilian observers.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 22, 2006 6:15:37 PM

"You could view David's storyline from Six Feet Under as an argument for or against homosexuality"

Well, writers do start out with a chosen scenario and characters, and do have reasons for what they start with. I might say that including David's storyline had something to do with normalizing homosexuality. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and hoping I have used an acceptable word.

Now the HBO writers in BL might have an interest in normalizing polygamy, and those "instances from the show" that show problems and difficulties would have much the same purpose as David's various problems and difficulties had in SFU. The agenda would not be disproved by the writers' subtlety;an audience cannot identify with perfect people leading a problem-free life.

I usually am "so inclined." But I haven't watched BL because I presumed it was like most fiction TV. Weirdness, sex, and subversion for humour and profit. That is not to say that homosexuality, polygamy, pot-smoking and selling, or killing your business partners are weird or subversive; I am a non-judgemental kind of guy. And I mean that. HBO does it best, and can't wait for "Weeds" to begin a 2nd season, but only because of my uncontrollable crush on Mary Louise Parker.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 22, 2006 8:02:38 PM

Heteronormativity Sucks for Gays and Lesbians, Children, Puppies, Kittens, and Even Straight People ...Amanda Marcotte

A link in penance for any traces of heteronormativity or homophobia that might be perceived in the last comment. And as Fred-repellant.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 22, 2006 9:33:11 PM

Bob Today you could be Craigie from Washington Monthly : you're HOT : as in quick quips, smarties.

Posted by: opit | Apr 22, 2006 11:13:07 PM

Or, to keep with Ilsa's numbering system, 5) The writers aren't making a "case" for polygamy/polyamory one way or another. They are attempting to envision what a plygamous household is like, in ways that a contemporary audience can relate to, in both good and bad ways. The conclusions one draws - polygamy is good because it works for Paxton's character; or polygamy is bad because Margene is like a butterfly crushed on the wheel of life (and dozens more) - are really one's own and one should own up to that.

I don't think the answer is simple, and I maintain that's what brilliant about Big Love. If polygamous people march on Washington tomorrow - and get arrested, by the way - I am not joining the parade or sitting at home saying, "you know, they have a point. I saw this on Big Love." (Nor will I be saying "Right on, brothers and sisters, just like gays deserved marriage, so do you!") No, I will continue to say "this probably all sounds swell unless you consider that it treats women as chattel." That's the view I came in with, and I'm sticking with it, at least for now.

This line - which, by the way, derives largely from How Conservatives View Art - in which every creative work has an easy identifiable "agenda" and once identified can be seen as advocating it wholeheartedly is nonsense. That's not what art is, it's not what drama does. Creative people explore ideas. The best works don't leave one with an easy answer, but in fact unsettle you by asking you (us... me) to consider something outside of your (our... my) comfort zone. It may change your mid, it may not. The part that conservatives are right about is that getting people to think is, indeed, dangerous. It can change the world. At the very least, it can change a mind.

I don't know what the writers of Six Feet Under were "saying" with the character of David, except that he was a part of a family and he happened to be gay. Remarkably, the world has families like that. There are polygamous families in America, and they "make it work." I don't necessarily know how (or even may want to), but I'll watch Big Love and I'll think about it. And I'll realize that there are women like Barb, and Nikki, and Margene. I don't know quite what to do with that... yet. But at least it's something to contemplate.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 22, 2006 11:25:27 PM

"I don't know what the writers of Six Feet Under were "saying" with the character of David, except that he was a part of a family and he happened to be gay. Remarkably, the world has families like that."

No. Fiction doesn't work that way.

SFU was created by Alan Ball who's gay, and the show itself was gay. SFU was always David's story. He was the character in the center of the show's emotional P.O.V.

(I had problems with Ball's movie American Beauty that I eventually boiled down to the movie being a gay movie trying to pass as a hetero movie in an emotionally dishonest manner.)

Likewise, I think the key to BL that no one is picking up on yet is that it also a gay show. The creators are a gay couple, and I think the attraction to them of the aspects of the underground and secret nature of the polygamous sexual relationships should be relatively obvious to the viewer.

Of course, SFU was a gay bottom show while BL is a gay top show.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 23, 2006 1:06:38 AM

"So, let's look at how this on-air experiment is going."

I figured out the problem with Saletan's piece:

He's operating under the impression that BL is actually a reality show, not a scripted drama.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 23, 2006 1:08:09 AM

SFU was created by Alan Ball who's gay, and the show itself was gay. SFU was always David's story. He was the character in the center of the show's emotional P.O.V.

Uh? No. Nate was the pivotal character. And I really don't understand what you mean by "the show itself was gay" -- and I'm really trying to. Anything you can say about David's character or story arc, you can find something analogous in Claire's, Ruth's, Rico's.

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft (Known! Bisexual!) | Apr 23, 2006 1:17:57 AM

I'd like to see a polygamous divorce, and all the ensuing nightmares it will create (if legalized) in family courts involving assets appropriations, visitation rights, etc.

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Apr 23, 2006 1:29:07 AM

And on the actual topic of Ezra's post, I'll note that this type of confusion in differentiating between what the protagonists of a work of narrative art are espousing, and what the work itself is espousing is a confusion that seems to bedevil a large percentage of civilian observers.

Exactly; we see that in the use of the word "glorifying" where most people would say "depicting". I remember 10 years ago cultural conservatives would accuse Trainspotting of "glorifying" heroin use and I would think "Huh? Did we watch the same movie?"

I can't imagine anyone watching Big Love and thinking that it makes polygamy look enviable for either sex. I think Ezra is right: Saletan began his column with an agenda and ignored the plain fact that what he thinks the show is about and what it actually depicts are not remotely the same thing.

Posted by: Charlie T. | Apr 23, 2006 1:46:24 AM

Okay watched Episode one, so I am 8 or whatever episodes behind everyone else, but these are my impressions:

1)Like good HBO, so real it hurts. Superb, but like so much of the HBO lineup, why am I getting emotionally involved with these people, and what is there to learn or understand from it? Like real life, nothing special or unique, but everything of value. Kindness, compassion, generosity, the most basic of everyday interactions big and small. I stopped watching SFU when I was crying at the end of every single episode.

2) Saletan is right and Ezra is wrong. But both are using the wrong analysis. The show, about religious people, is a religious show. Duh. Religion is both personal and social. About yourself and your community.

The show is about committment. In these days of hedonism and no-fault divorce, we say words at wedding ceremonies we don't really mean, or with our fingers crossed, or with conditions. BL is about people who don't take promises lightly. Of course the writers are trying to show polygamy as workable. The four partners are committed to making the family work. Human beings are free critters, and maximizing personal happiness is not the only possible strategy. Or personal happiness can come through a satisfaction with fulfilling duty.
What's the saying:"The kid feels life is joy, the youth thinks life is duty, the adult knows duty is joy."

Duty is, of course, self-determined. The show obviously deals with that, with the compound back-story.

I have always thought that HBO was basically a conservative network. I would watch the Real Sex shows, and the whipping and branding and role-playing had participants who were really not very interesting people. Just folks.

Written by gay writers? Whatever. The most important of values and norms are universal in a such a variety of human projects and cultures that life observed is both bewildering and comforting simultaneously. No shit.

Sopranos is kinda weird. And Showtime breaks some rules with Deadwood I think.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 23, 2006 2:57:23 AM

I don't know. Only elitist bloggers blog about others blogging about HBO shows, on their personalized blogs.

Posted by: Capt. Trollypants | Apr 23, 2006 3:03:52 AM

Sorry about the Captain. He's discovered shoelimpy and thinks he has an idol now.

Posted by: Pinko Punko | Apr 23, 2006 3:05:00 AM

Oh. And of course, BL is a conservative religious show that the self-proclaimed religious conservatives have to find a way to hate. Typical HBO psuedo-subversion.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 23, 2006 3:09:51 AM

Like most writers, they are simply trying to make a living. HBO dramas attempt to portray people who are in unorthodox life roles as real people just like you in me with the same drives and weaknesses. Both BIG LOVE and THE SOPRAANOS are very amusing. The writers obviously attempt to achieve this.

Posted by: Jim | Apr 23, 2006 10:06:33 AM

Accordig to Saletan's logic, does Melrose Place prove that mongomy can never work?

Posted by: Scott | Apr 23, 2006 1:00:04 PM

I agree with Saletan. I've been thinking all along that the writers on the Sopranos were completely failing to show that life in the mafia is a glamorous thing.

Posted by: DFL | Apr 24, 2006 1:17:41 PM

Hamilton, with all due respect, David is clearly and obviously the emotional center of 6FU, not Nate. Think about their character arcs--Nate arrives on the scene a clueless, shallow, self-centered whiny narcissist. This is precisely the way he exits the world. David, on the other hand, struggles and undergoes a series of moderate, incremental, difficult episodes of change and growth. I just don't see how anyone could reach the conclusion you do.

Posted by: djw | Apr 24, 2006 1:48:29 PM

Hamilton, with all due respect, David is clearly and obviously the emotional center of 6FU, not Nate. Think about their character arcs--Nate arrives on the scene a clueless, shallow, self-centered whiny narcissist. This is precisely the way he exits the world. David, on the other hand, struggles and undergoes a series of moderate, incremental, difficult episodes of change and growth. I just don't see how anyone could reach the conclusion you do.

Hm. We may have to agree to disagree.

Each of the major characters seems to me to make big strides to get their crap together, then backslide to reintroduce tension and conflict to the show as needed; apart from Nate, we get to see each of them on a good swing of the pendulum at the end of the show. (Depending on how you feel about Nate & Maggie, you could even make a case that Nate goes out on a good note -- he seems more or less at peace with his situation the last time they see each other.)

In the next to last episode, David is nearly as screwed up and low as he's ever been; he has a breakthrough in the final episode that brings him to a better place in his life -- but he's had that before, several times. If that's 'moderate, incremental' change, it's not distinctly different from Claire's or Brenda's or Ruth's cycles of being in and out of control of their lives.

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | Apr 24, 2006 3:17:50 PM

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