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.
Think about the last time you talked to your mom or your dad or your best friend. You probably knew roughly what they were going to say to you about any given subject you brought up, and you probably had a good idea how they would answer a question you asked them. Unless you’re somehow presenting entirely new information within the paradigm of your relationship (telling your mother, say, that you’ve decided to be an astronaut), you exist within fairly predictable boundaries. To a very real degree, the most stable relationships in our lives are the most predictable ones. Try though every movie featuring a Manic Pixie Dream Girl might, stable relationships are boring. Television, more than any other medium, relies on incrementally building a relationship between audience members and characters over time.
Think, for example, of I Love Lucy (hopefully a TV “text” everyone’s familiar with). There, the predictability is a part of why we love the show so much (if, indeed, we do). We know Lucy’s going to get involved in some crazy scheme, and it’s going to adversely impact Ricky, and somehow, she and Ethel are going to get in deeper and deeper until they unexpectedly get out. The enjoyment of any episode of I Love Lucy, to a real degree, is predicated entirely on our anticipation of what will happen when Lucy gets into and out of her latest scrape. Even if you’ve never seen the show’s most famous episode, just hearing that Lucy and Ethel are going to be working at a candy factory is probably going to start you chuckling if you’ve seen a handful of episodes of the show because you know that there are only a limited range of things that COULD happen and that most of them are going to be amusing. Most television (including Big Love) falls into this boring, stable place, which is why most television gets a little trying after five seasons or so. Shows like Lost, where pulling the rug out from under the audience is part of the show’s raison d’être, are like that kid jumping up and down, yelling, “I wanna be an astronaut!” over and over and over, and to a real degree, the very nature of television means that these attempts to be unpredictable eventually take on a predictability of their own.
One of the biggest complaints about television has always been that the medium is not terribly realistic. If you were actually married to Lucy, wouldn’t you have tried to get her to curb her crazy schemes? Would you have run for the hills? What if you actually, really, truly loved her? Would that be enough to keep you around? Like most of the television series of the pre-Hill Street Blues era, the title to I Love Lucy has a silent question mark following the title. Do you? Do you REALLY? In general, though, this is probably more realistic than a movie where someone has a large variety of life-changing experiences and then becomes a better person through it or where someone realizes that what they want most in the world is to sleep with their sworn enemy. So long as we’re operating within these classical narrative frameworks, movies are saying that what’s best about people is their ability to change. Television, at least for most of its history, has said that what’s best about people is our ability to predict what they’re going to do if we know them well enough.
But in the post-Hill Street Blues era, characters like those on I Love Lucy, simplistic to the point where they almost seem to be playing out preordained roles in some weird, cosmic farce, simply stopped being acceptable. If an Archie Bunker or a Mary Richards grew and changed over the course of their series, it was largely an accident of the show becoming a hit (since any long-running show tends to soften its characters, occasionally imperceptibly). While there were a few shows before Hill Street Blues where characters showed incremental change, the watershed really broke after that cop series hit the air, and it REALLY broke in the wake of The Sopranos, which was usually about all of the ways people could change without ever changing their essential natures. Tony could learn lots and lots about why he was the way he was in therapy, but he would never really address the monstrous deeds he did in order to live a life of comfort. (This is, of course, greatly oversimplifying The Sopranos, but I need to stop this rumination on TV history at SOME point.)
All of this brings us back to Big Love and the quandary presented by the Nicki storyline, which, as mentioned, seems like it’s likely to go one of two ways. Even if Nicki is a much, much more well-developed character than Lucy Ricardo, it seems likely that she’ll take one of the two paths up above (or perhaps a mixture of the two). Of course there are other possibilities, but most of them (including her continuing to hold allegiance to her father) seem more anticlimactic than Big Love usually goes in for. The two possibilities suggested above are the narrow number of possibilities between new story ideas (unpredictability) and what we know Nicki might do (predictability).
If TV is about revealing characters over the course of a meandering, long-form narrative, then every TV series with serialized elements reveals characters by a.) carefully controlling what information we get about those characters over the course of the series and b.) putting the characters we know well in new situations where they might be challenged. Over the course of a series, the focus shifts from a.) to b.) by necessity. In Season One, it was interesting to reveal unexpectedly that Nicki, the most straitlaced of the wives, had a mountain of debt. In season three, when we know Nicki better (her debt is actually used as a cover to the other wives for why she’s taken a job), it’s more interesting to see that she’s taken an undercover job for her father within the team building a case against him. But by holding back something from column a.) all this time (Nicki was placed in a marriage with a much older man at age 15, then released from it when her father “broke the seal,” while most other girls were made to suffer), everything from column b.) becomes much more interesting.
Sevigny and the writers, as mentioned last week, have all of this character’s drives and motivations down perfectly at this point, so the push-pull between learning new things about Nicki and wondering how these new bits of information are going to affect her current storyline becomes that much more compelling. To that end, Big Love embodies something we might as well call unpredictable predictability. If you really think about most of the story turns, they’ll suggest themselves to you, but by keeping the characters complicated beasts with many competing motivations, you can never really be sure until an episode is over, at which point, everything seems like it simply HAD to go that way. An even better exemplar of unpredictable predictability is Mad Men, whose entire modus operandi is built around making the characters do things that seem to come out of the blue, then showing how they’re completely in character. (I hate to drag Lost into things again, but that series might as well embody something like predictable unpredictability—you don’t necessarily know which way the story is going to go, but you can be relatively certain of how the characters are going to react to that story turn once you know it. In other words, I Love Lucy with a smoke monster.)
All of this is a lot of dithering about narrative theory for a piece that should really be focusing on what was, overall, a terrific episode. Even the stuff at the Juniper Creek compound was pretty good, since it focused on Lois (Grace Zabriskie) killing her husband (Bruce Dern). After an uneasily goofy early scene where she squirted him with a hose, the story quickly settled into a nicely unsettling place (including a pretty terrific shot of Lois, trying to kill herself, staring at the reflection of her final moments in a microwave—the end carried out in such a prosaic fashion that it seemed to tire the dramatic Lois, who quickly abandoned the pursuit). And, as usual, everything featuring the Henricksons was pitch-perfect, even as the storyline zipped from place to place, never quite going where you thought it would.
One of the easiest ways to boost unpredictability in a series like this is by keeping so many storylines running that you can open on one and close on something else entirely. Here, it seemed as though we were setting up for a central story about Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) dealing with her mother’s death (my one small complaint stems from the overused device of a woman going nuts and cleaning her entire house to deal with a grief she can’t quite figure out). This was beautifully played by Goodwin, and seeing how Barb and Bill reacted to the death while Margie began to realize just how much anger she carried toward her mother (even if she can’t put it in those terms yet) reinforced the maturity of all participants and the family bonds between them. I suppose this will be the catalyst for Margie beginning to take stock of her self and life (something a long time coming), leading in to a season four that’s All About Her (in keeping with what seems to be the show’s pattern), but I also don’t think it’s a mistake that Margie showed the most motherly instincts throughout the episode (saving Wanda (Melora Walters) from drowning and, briefly, putting her baby to bed).
But if this whole episode had a lot of interesting stuff going on, most of it was setting wheels in motion for the rest of the season or slightly advancing plots from previous weeks. It’s the storyline where Nicki is starting to realize some of the great evil her father has done that is the most gripping this week, as she tearfully pages through those books of young girls Roman used to trade with other polygamist sects, finally ripping out the photo of her at 15 in anger. If I was so moved by that moment when she broke down in the DA’s arms as to analyze why I was so moved, even as I knew how it would play out, it was because there’s just something about seeing someone you care for completely fall apart.
Some other thoughts:
1. Something I just realized tonight was that each season of the show has had a different composer. It’s an interesting way to give all three seasons a different “flavor.” The Bill-centric season got pseudo-quirky pop, while Barb’s season got oddly hymn-like music. The Nicki season seems to be going for something very sparse, which fits the character’s place of quiet desperation.
2. Hey, I didn’t say a thing about the titular prom, which was interesting, mostly for seeing Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) try to enjoy one last night of being normal before having to admit to her family that she’s pregnant (she tells her brother as the sun rises on the next new day). I did like seeing Heather (Tina Majorino) make out with Bill’s half-brother (Sarah’s date), and the tight smile on Seyfried’s face as she posed for the prom photo with her brother was a great, wordless acting moment. Side note: Has anyone ever actually had to go to prom with a relative, or is this just something that happens on TV? I only ask because I went to school in a TINY town, where if you didn’t have a prom date, one would be found for you, so I’m completely unaware of how this sort of thing normally goes.
3. Lots of women feeling cornered tonight, and I’m thinking that may prove to be a focus of the season (though, obviously, it is every season). Notice the similarities in framing between Margie trying to keep it together while going through her marathon cleaning session and dealing with her mother’s ashes and Sarah smiling for the camera, or the similarities between Lois donning the plastic bag to suffocate herself and Wanda stepping into the pool to drown herself (shot at roughly complementary angles). This show has a tendency to pile some of this on a little thick, but the Nicki plot really brought it home in a way that was surprisingly subtle. (Another woman feeling cornered: Rhonda (Daveigh Chase, who is no longer a regular for some reason) chasing down a limo bearing her boyfriend to prom with his niece.)
4. My wife notes that there are few TV shows as simply GOOD LOOKING as Big Love from week to week. This series boosts a surprisingly wide color palette (as mentioned in the past), and the rosy hues of that final scene between Sarah and her brother or the cool blues of the Henrickson backyard at night (drifting up from the swimming pool) work overtime to give these solemn scenes the visuals they need to truly have an impact. I need to start paying more attention to the lighting personnel on this show because they’re doing a bang-up job.
5. I promised I wouldn’t do this from week to week, but a slightly disheveled Ginnifer Goodwin (in that cleaning sequence) is proof that America is good and worth fighting for.
6. My apologies for the extended ruminations above. I will reiterate that I thought this was a mostly terrific episode, one of the best in the show’s run. If you have questions about how I felt about a specific plotline, feel free to ask away in the comments, and I’ll answer as best I can.