God and Man in Big Love

In my last post on Big Love, I described the show as "arguably - arguably! - one of the most sympathetic portraits of conservative religious belief on television." Writing on last week's episode, one of the show's finest, Todd VanDerWerff took up that theme:

Television doesn't do terribly well in portraying people of faith. To a real degree, this is a function of television being a mass medium and mass media wanting to do their best to keep their audiences as mass as possible, even in today's age of niche markets. To some degree, this has to do with fundamentalist Christian and Mormon audiences in the U.S. being deeply suspicious of a pop culture that portrays them as buffoons more often than not. Indeed, a good number of evangelical Christians have embraced The Simpsons' Ned Flanders, satirical warts and all, simply because he's a nice guy trying to live up to his creed in a world that continually tests him ...

... I say all of that, but Big Love has pretty much just gone ahead and MADE a show about the struggles of having faith in the modern world and has done so in a largely respectful and fascinating way on the network you'd least expect to be interested in broadcasting the good, clean fun of living by a strict religious creed. Big Love's occasionally anthropological feel - the series tends to shoot the religious ceremonies of the Henricksons as though it's a National Geographic documentary - is often overwhelmed by the sheer compassion it feels for all of its characters (outside of, arguably, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), who seems to be viewed as venal and unsalvageable). There's another scene in "Come, Ye Saints," scripted by Melanie Marnich and directed by Dan Attias, that struck me silent with its beauty. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), reeling from the death of her mother and the revelation that Bill's oldest son Ben (Douglas Smith) is in love with her, is destroyed when she accidentally leaves the urn carrying her mother's ashes atop a car and then drives off, scattering the ashes to the wind. She finally seems to let loose some of the grief she's been carrying, and then, Bill baptizes first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) in a hotel room hot tub as a proxy for Margene's mother, ensuring that when Margene dies, her mother will be there waiting for her on the other side.

It would be easy to play this scene for goofy laughs (it IS a pretty weird concept), but Big Love plays it for every ounce of poignancy it can muster, from the look of comfort on Goodwin's face to the cool lighting of the hotel room. "No soul is lost," says Bill, and for an instant, Big Love strikes you with the sensation of why these people are in this seemingly unsustainable setup, of why anyone would want to be a part of a religious tradition seemingly at odds with the modern world ... 

I'm sure that this is part of why I like the show so much - because at its best, it successfully dramatizes the tension between traditional religion and modern American life that every serious believer ought to feel. And not only those tensions related to sex (though obviously they loom large - this is an HBO soap opera, after all), but the broader dissonance between what it takes to be a Christian and what it takes to be an American success story, with a business empire, a big house (or three), and all the rest of it.

Yes, this dramatization takes place through the lens of Mormon fundamentalism (with the ghoulish Juniper Creek compound, I suppose, as the equivalent of the Benedict Option), which stacks the deck against traditional religion even as it raises the dramatic stakes.
But the risk of sounding like a more extreme version of the evangelicals who love Ned Flanders, I'll take what I can get.