Big Love and the Art of the Soap Opera

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I'm of the opinion that the first season of The O.C. - and only the first season - is the finest teen soap opera ever made. I'm also of the opinion that the thing that made the first season so great was the thing that made subsequent seasons unsuccessful - the decision to take a set of narrative arcs that earlier soaps would have stretched out across multiple seasons, and cram them all into a single year of television. Thus a single subplot on The O.C. could have easily filled an entire episode of Dawson's Creek, and a single episode usually contained as much drama as three hours of 90210. This made for riveting television while it lasted, but it didn't last long: By the second season, the show felt increasingly tired and desperate; by the fourth, it was a joke. (The series finale achieved, I think, a kind of perfect dreadfulness rare among once-good shows.)

I've been anticipating a similar fate for Big Love, HBO's polygamist soap opera, since its crammed-full-of-plotting first season: This is great, I thought, but they're going to run out of gas soon enough. But here we are in the third season and somehow the thing just keeps getting better, even though the average episode probably telescopes in more subplots and reversals than The O.C. ever did. (A major character's mother died this week, and it was about the fifth-most-important thing going on in the episode.) This is a testament to, among other things, the nearly-infinite dramatic possibilities presented by the show's premise, and the remarkable work the cast does selling it. (Orange County sturm und drang has nothing on Mormon drama, it turns out - and with all due respect to Peter Gallagher and his awesome eyebrows, The O.C. never had anyone half as good as Harry Dean Stanton, or Chloe Sevigny, or Amanda Seyfried for that matter.) But it's also a testament to the way the show fits the times, and holds up a mirror to their confusions. 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. (And it does so, not incidentally, through what's arguably - arguably! - one of the most sympathetic portraits of conservative religious belief on television at the moment. But that's a subject for a longer post.)

I don't want to overrate Big Love: It's still ultimately a soap opera, with a soap opera's various tics and weaknesses, and its fundamental mode is melodrama. But it's well on its way to becoming not only the finest soap opera ever made about suburban polygamists, but one of the finest grown-up soap operas, period.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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