Friday, February 06, 2009

interesting point of view

Stanley Fish
Looking for Someone to Like - NY Times
Near the end of the first episode of “Big Love”’s new season, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), the second of Bill Henrickson’s three wives, stands up on the roof of her house in the middle of a block party. She’s been repairing the roof rather than joining the festivities because she feels unwanted in the neighborhood. But when a couple of the neighbor kids make off with her ladder, she can’t take it anymore and she rises up to say her piece: “All I ever wanted was to be off the compound and live a normal life and be truly free.”

This is an amazing statement. By “normal life” Nicki means a life in a mini-compound (three houses opening up on one backyard) with her husband, her two sister-wives and the eight children Bill has sired. The compound she has fled is led by her patriarch-father, Roman Grant (the great Harry Dean Stanton) and by other male elders who enforce strict obedience to rules they flout and who demand servile fidelity to their every word. (You must be “in harmony with me” is the byword.)

The Henricksons, in contrast, practice a kind of participatory democracy (within limits); everyone has a say; everyone has rights; everyone has dreams and at least some space to pursue them. True, the family arrangement is illegal, and a certain amount of subterfuge is required to avoid exposure and arrest, but you can’t have everything. Nicki is truly grateful for the life she now leads and when she finishes her speech the members of the family salute her, bring her down and crowd around her in fellowship. It’s a moment of big love.

And then it gets bigger. Suddenly someone says, “O.K., everyone, I’m here on your terms.” It’s Ana, a woman whom Bill (Bill Paxton) has been courting, not for himself, but for the whole family. Ana has been more than willing to have an affair with Bill, but he (in a nice gender reversal) insists that there must be a wedding ring first, which means that she must be willing to marry them all — Bill, Barb, Nicki and Margene, and the eight children. Now she says she is.
As powerful as this sequence is, it is only a small portion of the events the episode contains. In no particular order, Barb (wife number 1) is undergoing tests for cancer, although no one knows about it; Bill is trying to negotiate a casino deal with a Native American tribal representative who is taken with Margene, his third wife; Bill’s father, played by the sublimely slimy Bruce Dern, is making a play for power while Roman Grant is in prison (he has been indicted for various offenses with underage girls).

Roman’s son Alby is trying to keep his father in jail after having failed to kill him (he is also trying to hide his homosexuality); Nicki has gone undercover in an effort to help her father’s case; Sarah, Bill and Barbara’s daughter, has secretly applied (and been accepted to) Arizona State University, but feels drawn to the life she claims to want to escape.

It sounds bewildering and kaleidoscopic and it is, but even when the plot veers in unexpected directions, it always winds its way back to the Henricksons and their efforts to build on earth a family that will be together in eternity. Barb and Nicki and Margene form ever-shifting alliances, act out more forms of jealousy than you knew existed, vie for Bill’s affection, jockey for influence and do all the other things sisters do. But in the end what binds them is genuine affection and concern. Exasperated as they may be with one another, they really like each other and they are really likable .

And that is why “Big Love” is one of the few TV programs I look forward to watching. There are people to like. Likability is not highly prized on the small (or not so small) screen these days. If you watch programs like “Mad Men,” “Damages” and “The Shield” (which has now concluded its run), you would think that the point is to keep introducing characters who are even more repellent than the characters you already shrink from. Any hint of a redemptive quality is quickly overwhelmed by deeds so heinous that you literally cringe.

No doubt this is “realistic” (a sure-fire honorific) and an antidote to the sentimentality everyone likes to put down. But sentimentality is good for you, especially if it comes wrapped in first-rate acting, crisp dialogue and a directing style (imitative of “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” and “The Wire”) that ferries you from dramatic moment to dramatic moment without asking you to think too much about what is going on. (The thinking comes later.)

Readers of this column or of an earlier column listing my 10 best American movies ever (and let me rectify an omission by adding “Die Hard”; how can you not love a movie that makes dramatic/comic use of both Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Vaughn Monroe’s rendition of “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let It Snow!”?) will not be surprised to hear that one of my all-time favorite TV programs is “The Waltons.” Another big family living under one roof, even more multi-generational — mother, father, a slew of children, grandma and grandpa, visiting relatives and assorted neighbors, all interacting in an endless array of storylines.
The heterogeneity of the sprawling cast is reined in and given shape by the core commitment everyone has to the family’s survival and flourishing. External forces are always threatening to break it apart, but they are always repelled and the goodness of life on Walton’s Mountain is always reaffirmed. Each story comes accompanied by a moral lesson, but its didacticism is tempered by a clear-eyed awareness of the travails one cannot avoid in this vale of tears.

“Big Love” is the new “Waltons.” It gives more scope to the travails than to the lesson, but the lesson is there, and it is the same one: loyalty, solidarity, love. Indeed, it would be entirely appropriate for the newer series to pay tribute to the older one and end each episode with a round-robin of “good nights.” Good night Bill, good night Barb, good night Nicki, good night Margene, good night Ben, good night Sarah and, maybe (though I doubt it), good night Ana.


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