Big Love: Part of a Great 'Anti-Setting'

By Laurie Sanchez

We know all about the anti-hero. And, as fellow diva Angela Guillaume brilliantly pointed out, he has an incredible lure about him. He’s not the normal hero, thundering through our books and movies with honor and good intentions. He’s split; he’s bent; he’s the rogue with a heart. I love these stories -- I see it as an incredible talent that the writer can make us love the thief, murderer, criminal, or heartbreaker.

But there’s another scenario that I find similarly full of talent. I don’t know what to call it, exactly, but perhaps the “anti-setting”? It’s when the author brings us into a world that’s split, bent and full of broken laws. And we think we cannot accept it, or cannot be glad to be there. And yet there we are, rooting along for the law-breakers.

One recent example is the television show Big Love, which started its fourth season last night.

I couldn’t wait to tune in. I looked forward to seeing how Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton) and wife Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) would handle the new challenges of their family, which – in this story of modern polygamy – also includes “second wife” Nicki (played by Chloe Savigny) and “third wife” Margene (played by Ginnifer Goodwin).

Much to my joy, this season doesn’t look like it’s going to disappoint. It brings us into this “anti-setting” of modern polygamists – where we know we’re not supposed to approve – and manages to make us approve. We really feel for Bill and his family, and really cheer them on. We know polygamy is against the law. And we can scowl when we hear that an entire television show is based on it. But it’s a wonderful show, filled with true love between these couples, and interesting people who make this decision. It’s filled with all the regular trials of love – jealousy, and tiredness, and watching the kids, and getting along with in-laws – and we find ourselves drawn into this setting that we’re supposed to disdain. It’s an incredible talent of the show's creators, producers and writers – they truly bring us to see another side of life.

I asked my family about other movies and television shows that did this same thing with the “anti-setting.” My son suggested Shawshank Redemption. We root for convicted murderer Andy Dufresne and felon “Red” Redding, although we know we’re not supposed to side with prisoners. The talent of the writers (the original story was written by Stephen King as a novella) draws us into this setting that sounds impossible but shows us another, very human side of life.

My husband then brought up Ocean’s Eleven. Again, we're brought into the world of con-men, and made to root for people who are breaking the law. Like Shawshank, the “bad guys” are made to be worse than the con-men, so it comes together in perfect conflict. This impossible-sounding setting was also originally a novel, written by George Clayton Johnson.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might have been one of my first introductions to this concept. Again, the original storyline was brought to us by a novelist. And, like the others, it's exceptionally well-done. We’re not used to thinking of nurses being the “bad guys” and the wanna-be-escapees being the “good guys,” but there it is. Ken Kesey wrote the original storyline. And there we are – cheering for the patients to overthrow the nurse.

Can you think of other “anti-settings” you’ve enjoyed? Groups that you’re cheering for who are breaking the law? And what do you think of Big Love?

Laurie Sanchez lives in Southern California with her hubby and three kids and is putting the polishing touches on her first romance novel manuscript. She also blogs as Mizwrite and blogs over at Health Bistro on Fridays. She promises she's a law-abiding citizen.


  1. I think of my husband and I recently catching an episode of The Vampire Diaries after which I commented that the evil brother was more appealing to me than the good one. Not because one was better looking than the other, but almost because often women want to imagine that they can be the girl who turns it all around for them, makes the bad guy go good, in turn also making you root for the bad guy. This series was also a book first, in fact romance novels for teens! Get em' started young.

  2. I suppose the gangster setting is a good example - for me, especially the world of Rock 'n Rolla by Guy Ritchie (British mobsters and their various hierarchies) and the world of assassins in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.

    The seedy world of low-rent boxing from the Rocky films is also an area most viewers wouldn't normally be drawn to.

    And how about the miserable setting from Trainspotting - the dregs of Scottish drug addict society?

  3. Hi, Anon! Yes, I think the vampire communities are definitely a good example of this. Although now they've been so overdone that we DO expect the vampires to be the good guys now, huh? But originally, yes, we didn't suppose we would be rooting for the vampires, and yet we did. (Because there was a "worse" antagonist in "lessers" or whatever.) But great example!

  4. Julia -- All of those are great examples! I was thinking of the gangster settings, too, but I couldn't think of one where I really did root for them as a community. In the ones I could think of (oldies like The Godfather and Goodfellas), you're really hoping the protag will LEAVE the community, and assuming he'll be better off if he does.

    However, the grittiness of the Rocky movies and the fighter communities -- that's a great one to me. They're not breaking the law or anything, but we do suppose we wouldn't "approve" of that world, or wouldn't want to live there. And yet we fall in love with it a little bit. The creator/writer really brings us into this other world and makes us see another side.

    Great comments!

  5. Great examples, Laurie! La Femme Nikita might fall into this category. I love the original French version of this film--grittier, more believable. She's taught to be an assassin, and we end up rooting for her. The Bourne trilogy, also--Jason Bourne is off the reservation, taught to be an assassin, and uses his skills to survive, and you end up rooting for him, no matter how many lives he ends up disrupting trying to get his vengeance and justice.

  6. Hi, Toni! Yes, Bourne Trilogy is a good example -- any time you're made to root for an assassin, you have to wonder "how did the writer make me DO that?" !! I always try to analyze it -- Sympathetic past? Terrible wound from childhood? Trying to find love and we all root for that? I love to think about how writers get us to feel the way we do. I haven't seen La Femme Nikita, but I'll have to check it out!

  7. Hi Laurie

    I think here of Fight Club and the British gangster stories like Layer Cake. These guys are bad but still we side with them. Bourne was a great example too.

    The other Divas will chuckle at this, but one that hit me real hard last year was Wanted starring James McAvoy. A secret organisation trains him to be an assassin (they can 'spin' bullets!) and he's got this lust to learn how to kill people effectively. Allright, it was motivated by his need for revenge, to get the guy who killed his father, but appearances can be very deceptive.

    Great post, loved it. In case I missed welcoming you to the Divas, here's my belated welcome!



  8. Z - I second you on the world created in Wanted.

  9. Great Post - I haven't seen Big Love but I love all the movies you listed. I had never thought of the anti-setting before!

  10. Oh, Z, I also loved Wanted, Fight Club too.
    Great topic, Laurie. I love conflicted characters in general. I could almost argue for the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland (looking forward to the Johnny Depp version!), for the bizarre worlds the characters are thrown into.

  11. I would definitely put Deadwood in that category. It's definitely an 'anti-setting' where the audience roots for people who are despicable by today's standards.

    The world of The Sopranos might fit too, since within the gangster framework there were the 'good' guys (crazy!) and 'bad' guys.

    Intriguing concept!! Thanks for sharing this. Great post.


  12. Z -- Hello, and thank you for the lovely welcome. I will be hanging out here more often (now that I finally figured out how to get the divas on my Google reader). And you and Julia and Cate have me intrigued about "Wanted" now! "Fight Club" is another great example!

    Hi, Kelly! Thank you! Check out Big Love if you get a chance. ... Although, I must admit, I was trying to look at it as someone who hadn't seen the first seasons and admitting to myself that it might be hard to jump into late in the series. But the strange setting is definitely one worth looking at.

    Chiron -- I haven't seen "Deadwood"! Recommend? And I mentioned "The Sopranos" to my husband, although he disagreed because he said you never really "side" with them. But I'm not sure. ... Jury's out on that one. You and I might have to argue this one with my hubby. :)

    And I thought of another one last night -- Weeds!

  13. Hey Kelly!

    Although your hubby has a point, I do think that within the framework you can't help but root for certain characters. That in itself turns it into a separate world. Do we hope Tony will reign over the rival mob boss? If so, we've unconconsciously assigned him the role of good guy in an anti-setting. Wow. I really like this concept!

    A similar example is The Shield, right? The Strike Team were a mixture of ethics, yet we root for Vic to not get nailed by the investigator, who in turn puts the moves on Vic's wife and becomes a definite bad guy. Fascinating stuff.

    Oh, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was an early favorite!

    Deadwood is brilliant. Very violent though and, as mentioned, there's an abundance of bad guys. It's loosely based on actual characters who lived in the town of Deadwood, South Dakota in the late 1800's. The writer takes liberties with facts, however the characterization is amazing.

    It's gritty, shocking, intriguing and overwhelming. One of the best series we've ever seen. To this day, hubby will say as I pick up the remote, "What's on tonite? Deadwood?"

    Al Swearengen may be the best anti-hero ever seen on television. Yes, I highly recommend it, though, as I said, it's not for the faint of heart.

  14. Great post Laurie! I can't recall - def. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Also the Godfather movies and anything by Scorcese ;)

  15. @ Cate & Julia - Gosh, the promo team of Wanted should get us on their crew - we're doing a great job promoting that movie!

    @ Laurie - Lol, you really gotta check Wanted out! Totally startled me this one. We actually got it because, uhm, Angelina Jolie with a gun in her hand was on the cover, and hubby went, we're getting this! Lol. Boy, am I glad he did make me check it out!

    Agree with Chiron - The Shield is a very good example too. If I'm not mistaken, General Hospital too has taken a turn into the anti-setting, Anti-hero whom we root for kinda twist. That's what I gathered when I read James Franco was gonna join the cast there.

    Great to have you on board, Laurie! :)




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