This is a short post that should probably be a longer post, but I don’t really have a lot of clear observations to make on this topic; I just want to bring it up. Big Love recently started its fourth season, and it’s one of HBO’s more enjoyable shows. Yet I’ve always found it a little odd that it contains so much melodrama. When it was first announced, I sort of expected a small-scale family drama about a polygamous family. Instead, it is really a full-on soap opera in a lot of respects, with lots of sensationalistic plot twists. Which is fine; that’s what it is, and it does that well. But it brings up the point that HBO, for all its attempts to break with the common devices of U.S. TV, is still sticking with an important rule of U.S. television drama: it has to be big, not small. It has to be melodramatic, and it has to contain elements of sensationalism, violence, big dark secrets.
What U.S. television drama still has trouble doing, for all the advances over the last decade, is small-scale, realistic drama about everyday lives. Think about it: the general rule is that if you’re pitching a show about people who do not have anything spectacular going on in their lives, and who lend themselves to small stories, then it’s a half-hour comedy. Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond could be done as dramas, but they probably wouldn’t be. Would HBO, which produced Raymond, greenlight a serious drama about a man’s inability to break free of his parents’ suffocating influence and how it affects his marriage? Sure — but it would have to have a lot more murders and long-lost identity twists.
If there is a middle ground here it’s in the one-hour dramedy, the Freaks and Geeks kind of show. (Speaking of Raymond, Ray Romano himself has retuned with a good show in this form, Men of a Certain Age, which got picked up for a second season.) These shows are often classified as comedies, but they’re really not: they are non-melodramatic dramas, in the tradition of plays and films that are clearly dramas but don’t have anything particularly “big” happening in them. Most of these types of plays, from Chekhov onward, have an element of humour in them, but the essential thing about them is that they are basically serious about lives and situations that are not very remote from everyday life. Of course these shows have to be more melodramatic and intense than real life, but they do try to emphasize small, not big.
But the HBO-style cable show, perhaps because HBO is so dedicated to shock and surprise, tends to run away from anything small. They’re always trying to do epic novels or Shakespearian tragedy for TV, which is all very well. But to some degree what they’re trying to do is the usual U.S. crime drama or soap opera, except bigger, more profane and more artistically ambitious. The basic limitation — that drama must be melodramatic and non-melodrama is the realm of comedy — still remains, with some exceptions (In Treatment had some “small” elements to it — but of course In Treatment‘s stories have all come from a non-U.S. show).