Wednesday, August 04, 2010

More Big Love ruminations, or, No Mormons were harmed in the writing of this post

We've made it to the end of season three of Big Love, and while it got a little uneven over the last few episodes, overall I still have to give the series a big thumbs up. I've been pounding out some notes on the various points of interest the series has—academically speaking—for potential articles; there are a variety of tangents I can take, but the one that occurred to me today is the weird incongruity between the kind of shows HBO has become known for, and the basic content of Big Love. To put it another way: HBO has always taken advantage of its freedom as a pay station to depict things like nudity and profanity, stuff you can't get away with on regular cable. Indeed, HBO series take transgression to a new level, with the very nearly Shakespearian potty mouths of Deadwood, or the frequent graphic gay sex of Oz.

Big Love, on the other hand, depicts deeply religious and self-consciously decent people for whom swearing is about as unthinkable as taking a drink. The most offensive the language gets are with such foul ejaculations as "Oh, my heck!" and "What the H are you thinking?" (come to think of it, the phrase "foul ejaculations" would probably cause serious upset within the Henrickson clan). To those familiar with the blue language of The Wire and Deadwood, Big Love is almost shocking for its propriety. I amuse myself sometimes imagining a crossover episode that would make Jimmy McNulty a house guest of the Henricksons.

Which made me ponder: is this how HBO now gives us edgy content? There's a great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin shows Hobbes how he offends his parents with his music: elevator music, played very softly. When you have very secular and liberal sensibilities, when you grew up listening to industrial music or gangsta rap (or both), what exactly do your children have to do to earn your disapprobation? Christian rock and a membership in the Young Conservatives?

I say this of course with my tongue in my cheek, but one of the things I like about Big Love is that it does not depict the Henricksons' religious devotion ironically (which might be the series more subtle irony, but I will come to that). On the contrary, the characters are quite earnest in their faith. To be sure, there are some comic moments (usually involving Nicki) where the tenets of Mormon fundamentalism appear risible, but the show lets Bill and his clan be sincere in their beliefs with a minimum of implicit critique.

That being said, it is hard to avoid the fact that HBO's prevailing demographic is a university-educated, largely secular and liberal audience—an audience likely to be at least sceptical of such religious fervour as depicted on the show, at most dismissive or hostile. I can of course only proceed from my own subjective response to the show, but I have to imagine that there are many viewers of a similar mindset to mine: who like the Henricksons as characters, but also view this world—not just the polygamists' world, but a social context in which one's adherence to the Mormon Church (or any church) is an arbiter of one's social virtue—is utterly alien. Indeed, one of the most interesting thematic points of Big Love, and something I suspect mitigates the Henricksons' lifestyle for a liberal audience, is the fact that the social condemnation of polygamy proceeds not from an abhorrence of such a crushingly patriarchal system, but from the dogma of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Polygamy, originally a basic tenet of the Mormon Church, was officially disavowed in 1890 by church president Wilson Woodruff under Congressional pressure. The prejudice against the Henricksons seems to be less a matter of intellectual distinction than pious adherence to church doctrine, and the church itself functions on the show as a panoptical entity with a constant disapproving eyebrow cocked at anyone not vigorously active in church activity. (In season one, the church distributes colour-coded street maps to neighbourhoods indicating which homes are "active" and which ones are "inactive"; Nicki, whose dress and demeanour identify her as a fundamentalist, has her house blacked out).

The series also fosters an understanding of Mormonism, and the Henricksons' heretical offshoot, only gradually—and it was only in the third season that the theological underpinnings of polygamy and the history of the LDS Church came into focus. Again speaking from a subjective position here, this has the effect of introducing the loonier aspects of Mormonism only when you have an emotional investment in these characters. To wit: in the 1820s in western New York, Joseph Smith Jr. (who had been previously arrested several times for grifting and scamming people) announced that he had, after three visitations from the Angel Moroni, discovered two gold plates that told the story of the origins of those living in America and the truth of the Gospels. He also had two magical stones that, when fashioned into eyeglasses, allowed him to translate the plates. In the course of about two months, dictating from behind a curtain (he refused to show the plates to anyone, but needed a scribe as he was himself illiterate), Smith produced about 500 pages of what was to become The Book of Mormon. Persecution from locals hostile to the self-styled prophet and his followers led to a protracted journey across the U.S., during which Joseph Smith was killed in Illinois in another altercation with locals (leaving behind thirty-two wives). The "saints" were ultimately led to the Salt Lake by Smith's lieutenant Brigham Young, where they established the geographical home of the LDS Church. Mormonism continues to be today one of the world's fastest-growing religions, boasting such congregants as Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck.

The principle behind polygamy—simply referred to as "The Principle" on Big Love—is the belief that the family you have in the temporal world is with you in the "Celestial Kingdom," the highest and most blessed plane of the afterlife, and that it is one's moral obligation to grow the temporal family as much as possible in order to obtain a more blessed afterlife. Hence, all of the difficulties faced by the Henrickson clan in maintaining and growing their family—and the pursuit of a family structure abhorrent to secularists because of its basis in an egregious paternalism and patriarchal imperative—are undertaken in the name of an arcane religious doctrine that I'm fairly certain seems not just odd to the HBO demographic, but actively delusional and quasi-insane. Which, I would argue, is where the series develops its subtle irony—dramatic irony, as it were, as the audience watches Bill et al subject themselves to a host of difficulties for reasons they find, at the very least, unnecessary.

The insularity of the world depicted on Big Love also contributes, I believe, to its dramatic appeal to a largely secular audience. Though not harping on this point, both the polygamists and the mainstream Mormons make it clear that those not baptized into the LDS Church are damned—or at least definitively excluded from eternal joy in the Celestial Kingdom. Hence, though we may find the Henricksons endearing, we have little reason to be sympathetic to an exclusive religious doctrine that so emphatically shuts out not just non-Christians and non-believers, but the vast majority of Christians as well. The incursions of secular perspectives are few and far between, and were the show to consistently stage the conflict as between religion and secularism, I certainly know I would find it a lot more difficult to sympathize with the Henricksons and their fellow-travellers. To put it simply, I'd have a dog in the hunt, whereas in its current form I find myself sufficiently outside the show's context to be at once more objective and also more emotionally involved with the main characters.

As a final thought, I would argue that the great value of Big Love is the fact that it offers a subtle but trenchant critique of religious doctrine and the nuclear family portraying both taken to their illogical extremes. The disturbing, cultish quality of the compound-living fundamentalists is contrasted with the modern sheen of the contemporary LDS—but as already mentioned, the mainstream LDS Church is itself portrayed as oppressive and prejudiced, and besides which sharing the bizarre origin story of the self-styled latter-day Mohammed, Joseph Smith Jr. The thought that occurs to me however when reading the Smith narrative is that the only thing that really makes it more unbelievable than any other religious origin story is its proximity to us in time—it lacks the aura of authenticity bestowed upon other religions' starting-points because it emerges not in mythic time, but in years recent enough for us to read about Smith's arrests for grifting in the New York newspapers of the day.

Similarly, the contrast between the Henricksons' shiny modern suburban life and the rustic, rudimentary pioneer-village of the fundamentalist compound is a visual cue that identifies them more closely with television's standard depictions of the nuclear family. Throughout the first season, Big Love generally depicts the Henricksons as happy and balanced family unit that who would have a perfect life if only the rest of the world wasn't prejudiced against them. This happiness is however increasingly shown to be a facade, with the cracks showing as various family members chafe against the asymmetries of what is ultimately shown to be a rigidly hierarchical system. Though Bill himself at first seems like a veritable paradigm of masculine responsibility, generosity, and, yes, liberality, he increasingly comes to assert the absolute authority of the patriarch and make recourse to doctrinal justification for that authority. In the process, the traditional model of the nuclear family suffers by comparison: the "father knows best" model, which as I've suggested in previous posts is a television staple, ultimately appeals to the same logic of innate masculine authority.

OK, much longer post than I'd planned. Still ... thoughts?


star*mora said...

my favourite show...themes that i find really intriguing about the show are prophet/profit.

prophet at any expense (roman/bill) - roman in the more bare and obvious way - bill in a more "refined one" but arguably just as cruel as he disregards his wives (esp. 1st) in the name of his take on religion.

and profit at any expense (roman/bill)
- again roman is more overt about keeping his people impoverished while he lives more comfortably, and bill with his big box store and then later roman-izing by going into the casino.

the past season seemed to be more about bill setting the stage to be the prophet, with a complete disregard for all that is occurring around him...blind faith, and yet an active one i suppose in that you can be human and god-like.

Anonymous said...

You're at least half-way to a fine article!

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