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Truth, fiction or something in between? The meaning of TV
June 26, 2006
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary

Media critic Neal Gabler has suggested that popular entertainment is turning the nation into a giant transcontinental soap opera. Individual citizens are creating "life movies" starring themselves, and the entertainment industry has become "a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life."

Gabler's assessment comes immediately to mind in light of the way that Hollywood and the entertainment industry are repackaging reality even when dealing with issues as intimate as realities of family life and the institution of marriage.

Columnist Lee Siegel considers the meaning of television in his recent review of the HBO series, "Big Love," which presents a polygamous husband, Bill Henrickson, living with his three wives and their children. Siegel's essay appears in the May 22 edition of "The New Republic." "Culture events such as 'Big Love' are to the media what the doings of a mysterious new family are to gossip in a small town," Siegel explained. Thus, the appearance of the series now under contract for a second season provides a catalyst for many in the media to raise questions about marriage, polygamy, the Mormon movement and a host of related issues.

Siegel suggests a very interesting argument. In his view, the success of HBO's various series, including "Big Love," "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under," can be explained by the fact that the network goes for stories from the margins of society. "Their weirdness both normalizes your own most unsettling impulses and gets your vicarious wheels turning," Siegel asserted. "But the latter effect is stronger than the former."

Looking at the history of the television medium, Siegel suggests that the older television programs "sought out the everyday and diversified it with the exceptional." Now, the situation is reversed. Television now seeks "the ordinary in the extraordinary."

Siegel's central thesis is this: "Commercial society's deepest aspiration, after all, is a synthesis of total instinctual gratification with the preservation of the social order." Advertisers may have depended upon "subliminal seduction" in the past, but, currently "unconscious desire is as plainly visible on television as that iPod in your hand."

"Big Love" may deal with "issues," like plural marriage, the future of the family and patriarchy, along with many others, but the real power of the series is its presentation of the bizarre as (at least partly) normal. Siegel calls this new television form "allegorical realism." "Its extreme situations always verge on symbolic resonance, but they are too closely tied to familiar dialogue and context to acquire much abstract meaning." In other words, the compelling power of the story, and the familiar structure of the dialogue, conspire to hide the truly bizarre nature of polygamy from view.

Siegel is really onto something. The popularity of television dramas like "Big Love" must be rooted in the fact that they play into sexual fantasies while appearing to normalize the persons involved thus allowing viewers to enjoy the dramas as entertainment, without taking responsibility to make judgments in moral terms.

In the end, Siegel sees "Big Love" as "both the indictment of a commercialist ethos of gratification and the expression of it." He can only wonder where this will lead: "As television grows less and less constrained in its imagination of the antinomian and the weird, you wonder where the emphasis will finally fall, on a new type of popular art or a new type of pandering to the appetites."

Either way, Siegel's analysis presents a frightening portrait of the future with entertainment bringing more and more of the weird and exotic into the center of the American consciousness fueling an antinomian revolution, accompanied by canned laughter or a sophisticated soundtrack.

A strange validation of Siegel's thesis appears in the very same issue of "The New Republic," when columnist Michelle Cottle suggests that "Big Love" points to an opportunity for Americans to rethink marriage. In her view, two parents are simply not enough for today's postmodern family. In most families "there is a corrosive shortage of support of the physical, logistical, and, perhaps most importantly, emotional kinds once consistently provided by your garden variety housewife."

Now that very few women are traditional housewives, perhaps there is the need, she suggests, for another committed adult in the picture. This new addition would not be "interested in procreating," she insists, but would give himself or herself to the welfare of the family. In today's highly stressed families, another wife and mom might help, she suggests.

"It is into this breach that an extra wife could step," she suggested. "Better still, since the kind of multi-spouse arrangement I am envisioning isn't about maximizing the number of offspring, one could just as easily have a household with two husbands. Indeed, the key to this brand of polygamy would be to make clear upfront that the second-spouse slot was for a woman or man specifically not interested in procreating. After all, how could you save labor with two families' worth of kids but not two full families' worth of parents?"

Cottle offers her tongue-in-cheek proposal as an angular critique of contemporary family life and marriage. Nevertheless, the very fact that "Big Love" would serve as the catalyst for her article, and polygamy as the prompt for her consideration, is significant. As Siegel warns, our entertainment threatens to become our reality.

Popular entertainment has become an ocean of antinomianism. This is perfectly suited for the temper of our times. Now that polygamy is presented as a natural theme for popular entertainment, what comes next?

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