When Eight Isn’t Enough

on hbo’s big love.

In her preview of the HBO polygamist family drama Big Love‘s third season, Heather Havrilesky of Salon argues that the show offers “subcultural rubbernecking at its very best.” She contends that Big Love “has an uncanny way of transforming outsiders into insiders.”

I wonder if one might offer the opposite interpretation: what Big Love really accomplishes is the transformation of outsiders into insiders. Subcultural rubbernecking becomes a way of gazing back at the mainstream. The exaggerated wrecks seen on Big Love are but vehicles for revealing broader crises in married and family life.


Home Plus is us (Photo: HBO)

In this sense, Big Love joins the long history of the American family situation comedy, which often takes the weird, unusual family as the setting to explore the deepest issues of the “typical” American family. Watching Big Love, we’re seeing the latest incarnation of The Munsters, The Addams Family, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, Eight Is Enough, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Sopranos. That is, the “abnormal” settings of these shows allow them to probe the most common, normal elements of average American family life.

Of course, since its creators are a gay couple, there is a particular subtext for Big Love‘s focus on the polygamous Hendricksons: the struggle for gay Americans to join the legal and social mainstream.

But Big Love does more than just seek inclusion for various people whose identities and choices get excluded from the mainstream. By making an extremely different family (or I should say diff’rent family) its focus, Big Love suggests that, at least when it comes to the dramas, comedies, intrigues, trials, tribulations, jealousies, and joys of American family life, the normative and the abnormal aren’t all that far apart.

If Big Love is to be believed, then it in fact takes the same strokes for diff’rent folks to move the world.

(Special Culture Rover shout out to Naomi Crummey for the insight into the nature of American family sitcoms.)

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