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Big, Big Love
Birth Pangs

Small Love: Giving Marriage a Bad Name

  • 3/1/10 at 5:55 PM

I spoke too soon.

Last night's Big Love was kind of terrible, wasn't it? So disappointing, especially after last week's extravaganza of arm-pruning and Gothic fertility treatments.

In contrast, last night's episode was all Bill thrusting out his chest, Mormon-rooster-style. Even in a TV environment that embraces the anti-hero — Tony Soprano, Larry David, Don Draper — the Big Love creators are in a bind with their bland, butterscotch patriarch. They can't make Bill a hero (he's a pig, a hypocrite, a bully); they can't really condemn him (for the show to work, you have to believe the family is more than a sick joke).

It was affecting when Barb was confronted about the compromises she's made. But she's had this insight almost every season. There's a statute of limitations on my compassion.

I'm not immune to a greasy, voyeuristic carnival, but no reality show I've watched approaches the sheer repulsiveness of Seinfeld's The Marriage Ref, which is less an actual show than a series of unmotivated hee-haws, chuckles, guffaws, snorts, cackles, and shrieks into the abyss.

In one incredibly long half-hour, it violated all the laws of entertaining TV. It was hosted by the unctuous Tom Papa, crowing about the high standards of singles as if possessed by the spirit of Lori Gottlieb. The celebrity cast featured Marv Albert and Alec Baldwin, casting unpleasant shadows of their own relationship histories. And as Lane on Vulture pointed out, the show mined a truly unpleasant vein of class condescension, with Hollywood stars mocking lower-middle-class peasants. It didn't even try to make those disputes look real. The show made me feel sorry for both Kelly Ripa and the institution of marriage.

It also just wasn't any fun. After sampling The Marriage Ref's swirl of retro "take my wife please" cynicism and modern humiliate-me crassness, I felt like divorcing my husband in protest, the way some straight couples won't get married until gay nuptials are legal.

But even if it becomes some sort of sick sensation, the show is just a grease blot on what is quickly becoming the year of the smart family show, with Modern Family, The Middle, Parenthood, and Men of a Certain Age (and Big Love, too, when it's kicking on all gears) doing thoughtful and warm comic takes on relationships. One noisy neighbor can't wreck the whole neighborhood.

To make myself feel better, I read this funny piece about a Wall Street Journal writer's disastrous trip to the Modern Family set. "I had a bad dream that mommy wrote for the Wall Street Journal."