Big Like: Appreciation vs. Adoration for Three Seasons of HBO’s Big Love
January 10th, 2010
About a month ago, I pulled my copy of Big Love Season 1 off of my “DVDs I bought but never watched” shelf and popped the first disc into my DVD player. It was a show that I missed because of its strange schedule, the first two seasons airing before I got “really” into serious dramatic television and the third season only airing after a considerably long gap. So while some critics were calling Big Love’s third season (which aired early in 2009) its best, and while the show turned up on multiple “Best of” lists at the end of the year, I was definitely out of the loop with an impulse purchased Season 1 DVD set waiting for the day when I would eventually decided to catch up.
Now that this moment has finally come, I’m discovering just why Big Love is such a divisive show amongst critics. Maureen Ryan posted a great piece this week on the idea that there are shows which you know are good, but that you also know are not the right show for you. She lists Big Love (and Breaking Bad, which is also sitting on the aforementioned shelf) as examples of this phenomenon, and I can entirely see where she’s coming from. Meanwhile, critics like James Poniewozik and Jace Lacob are very much in love with the series, while Alan Sepinwall sits in that critical position of wanting the show to focus more on the parts he finds interesting (which, considering how the show toyed with this idea at points of the third season, is not an unreasonable desire).
Considering the nature of the television critics’ community, when I catch up with a show I can’t help but place my own thoughts in context of their own. And when it comes to HBO’s Big Love, I sit somewhere between appreciation and adoration, mediating my enjoyment of the show’s complex personal relationships and value systems with my frustration with some of the show’s pacing. The third season has gone a long way to convincing me, however, that despite my reservations at times, this is a show that is “for me.”
It might, however, be a show for me to like instead of love when it returns for its fourth season tonight at 9pm ET on HBO and HBO Canada.
[Spoilers for the first three seasons of Big Love after the jump]
Narrative Pollution in HBO Canada’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
January 8th, 2010
I like to consider Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, a short-form Canadian series debuting on Sunday, January 10th at 8pm ET on HBO Canada, a show made just for me. This is selfish, I know, but I studied the book as an undergrad so it sort of feels like Vincent Lam’s work is following me on my academic/personal/critical journeys. In fact, I even gave a presentation on the short story composite’s (I’ll explain that term in a second, although not in as much detail as I might be tempted to) relationship with television narrative (in a class which had nothing to do with television, by the way) during my time at Acadia University, so the long-gestating adaptation announced soon after the book won the prestigious Giller Prize in 2006 has been of great interest to me.
And while I’ll spare you (most of) the more academic consideration of the series that’s floating around my head after watching the opening episode (which, for Canadians, can be streamed on TheMovieNetwork.com), I will say that this is one example where having first-hand knowledge of the text at hand has largely ruined the series for me. This is not to suggest that Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a failure, or that what has been put on the screen is of low quality – there are some solid performances here, and the characters from Lam’s book remain compelling.
The problem is that in a text, and a medium, defined by its presentation of various time periods, executive producer Jason Sherman simply got it backwards – the parts of the story which have the most weight are relegated to flashbacks, and instead of allowing the narrative to unfold on its own time the series creates a melodramatic and unnecessary “present” which keeps it from engaging with the complexities of Lam’s story, complexities that seem perfectly suited to a new generation of serialized storytelling. I do not mean to suggest that there is only one way to adapt this series (after all, any adaptation will skew the original source text based on the writers and directors involved – I’m not THAT guy), but I will argue that the changes made reflect a reductive view of the short story as a medium and are unnecessary measures meant to kow-tow to genre stereotypes the producers are actively trying to avoid, resulting in a series that (while solidly made) fails to capture what made the original text so compelling as both a short story composite and as a potential television series.