At the end of Sunday’s typically overstuffed and compelling Big Love episode, “Prom Night” (conveniently scheduled directly opposite a surprisingly compelling Super Bowl by an HBO that is either confident in the show’s ability to pull in good ratings on rebroadcasts or just wants to rid itself of the thing already), written by Eileen Myers and directed by David Petrarca, I was contemplating which of two utterly predictable directions the storyline featuring Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) infiltrating the team working to build a case against her father Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) would take. It stands to reason that her new closeness to the attractive young DA she’s working with will either lead to her giving him misleading signals (and leading him to try to date her, since she’s ostensibly single) or to her eventually agreeing to testify against her father and thus dooming her family to exposure in a court of law.
In general, when criticizing works of art that fall within the Western narrative tradition (or, in Hollywood parlance, the three-act structure), it’s a pretty big sin to call a story “predictable.” This is usually shorthand for saying that something is formulaic or that it does nothing new within the genre it lives in. Certainly some forms of predictability are OK if the film, book, or play we’re tackling doesn’t claim to be reinventing the wheel—i.e., one of the chief pleasures of the romantic comedy is the almost religious quality to checking off the waypoints on the journey to getting the happy couple together at the end of the piece, and a work like this is usually judged by the skill used to bring the audience to a point they already know they’re going to. But, as I thought about the predictable nature of these storylines, I realized that essentially every storyline on Big Love is predictable, but I’m also not convinced that on television that that’s necessarily a bad thing.