Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Different Rules: Is Big Love the most moral series on television?

We don’t have HBO at our house, so I didn’t discover this series when it originally aired. I’d heard about it. At first the concept seemed like something that would appeal to me only slightly more than the cake decorating shows our local religious broadcaster would show in the early afternoons while I was growing up. Like most people, I found the whole idea of polygamy distasteful. I couldn’t imagine an entire TV series around the concept. Or, well, I could imagine it, and it was in my head like some mutant hybrid of Desperate Housewives and Last Man Standing. Not for me.

But then I started hearing about how good it was, how seriously it took the concept, how well-written and well-acted the characters. And then there was the presence of Amanda Seyfried, the late, lamented Lily Cane from late, lamented Veronica Mars. I was intrigued. So one weekend when I was home alone and looking for something to kill the boredom, I rented the first season DVD set. And then I knew exactly what they meant by the phrase Big Love.

The genius of this series is that it takes a concept most people are immediately repulsed by, and shows you the human and emotional layers underpinning it. You come to understand exactly how people can come to live this way, and in this story you find a connection with people who are in the middle of society, but are not part of that society. In its own way, and despite the immediate reaction most people have to its subject matter, Big Love may be the most moral series on television.

The concept of personal and sexual morality is not one given much real examination these days. A lot of series pay lip service to it, but that’s usually just so characters can feel bad as they’re breaking their own rules, followed usually by a bender where they feel so, so bad about what they’ve done before they go back to the way things were before. Rarely do we see a cast of characters who are so interesting because they stand up and resist, because they fight for what they believe, and fight as well to live up to it.

And that’s where the concept of polygamy becomes vital, because for that to really be examined, you have to take the story out of the realm of the familiar. These are people who live my different rules, but they are rules, and they are consistent, and seeing how they struggle can shed light on our own moral struggles. This might also be one of the best depictions of a family of faith I’ve ever seen. How many times have you seen the main characters in a modern series, when conflicted, or lost, or scared, or feeling gulty, literally getting down on their knees to pray for guidance? And receiving it. Most of the time this kind of thing is treated as a joke.

Yeah, there’s sex on this show. But it’s not casual and indiscriminate, It has consequences. And a context. And we may see our main family “living the principle” in a way that is moral, but we see the dark side of this practice as well. We see the compounds and cult leaders where young girls are made to marry 80-year-old men. We see the dichotomy that exists in this world. We see just how weird and twisted it can get. And in the second season, we feel for Bill, our main character, as he tries to have things both ways. He tries to “live the principle” but also walk in the mainstream world. And though he comes to some sort of stalemate with the forces against him, it is obviously something very temporary, and likely to have horrific consequences down the road.
I really do think this is the more moral show on TV right now. And I can’t wait to see how things work out for everyone next season, but I’m almost afraid of it too, because there’s some real badness on the horizon, I have a feeling, and I don’t want to see any of these people go down hard.

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