Big Love and Soap Opera

Haven't watched this week's episode. I'll have more to say after I do. Until then, Ross has a nice post on the series comparing Big Love to The O.C. and Dawson's Creek. I'd quibble with a couple things in his post. On a micro level, I think the fact that The O.C. and Dawson's were written for kids, changes a lot. But I don't object to his comparison. On a deeper level there's this:

Conservatives who interpret Big Love as an attempt to mainstream polygamy have it wrong, I think - or at least, they're missing the bigger picture, which is that the show succeeds because its portrait of polygamous marriage captures the kinds of familial confusions that post-Sexual Revolution Americans already experience as a matter of course.

The "familial confusions" hyperlink goes to my piece last week on Big Love, and how it intersects with my own fam. I would obviously differ with Ross over the "familial confusions" and "post-Sexual Revolution" characterization of my own family. To the contrary, I'd say if you laid out the basic, traditional values you'd want parents to communicate to kids we had them.

It's true that there are seven of us by four mothers. It's true that we didn't all grow up under the same roof. It's true that some of us did time in the projects, and some of us didn't. But it's also true that I've got a brother who's a civl engineer, another who's a programmer for Pixar, a sister who works for the AARP, a brothers who just graduated and is apping for law school, a brother and sister who work with my Dad at the company he founded in his basement, and so on...

It's also true that I'm the one who spent the most time in a "traditional" two-parent household. But more true, is that out my Dad's kids, I'm the biggest screw-up. I'm the only one who was kicked out of high school--twice. I'm also the only one who didn't graduate from college. I was also the second youngest to have a child. When I dropped out, it was like the world ended for my parents. And then it ended again when Kenyatta got pregnant. And then it ended again when we didn't get married. And then it ended again when I came to New York. And the saga continues...

My point is that while we didn't have the artifice of the traditional family, in terms of values, goals and outcome--to paraphrase Malcolm--we were the family the Waltons thought they were. We were the ones Reagan and the conservatives were waiting for--they were just too single-minded to see.

And this takes us even deeper. I've always believed that whatever confusions we did have, whatever family issues we had to work out, whatever demons we had to exorcise were no different than the demons that haunted more traditional family structures. I'm not psychic. But in my time, I've known people, and from what I can tell, their lives are always a tangled mess. I'm not special. And I'm not exceptional. Indeed, the motivating force behind my work, is that we're all complicated. We're all confused. And we've always been confused.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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