Polygamy on TV - Review of TLC's 'Sister Wives' Polygamy Reality TV Show, Part I

A Look at TLC's Polygamy Series, Kody Brown & the Sister Wives Relationship

TLC's controversial series Sister Wives attempts to put a normal, suburban spin on the concept of polygamy and the family of Fundamentalist Mormon Kody Brown. No "Little House on the Prairie" dresses here. No hair swept up in those 19th century buns. All three Mrs. Browns are blondes, dressed like anyone you'd see at Walmart or Target. Their blended family of 12 kids could pass as any normal (albeit super-sized) family; one even has her hair dyed goth black.

But that's where any semblance of 'normal' ends.

Nowhere in my suburban neighborhood is there a single family house containing three separate apartments with kitchen, living room, and bedrooms for each wife and her kids. Or a husband with three wives who rotates through each of their beds -- one per night -- doing his manly duty like a stud bull.


Kody Brown, Polygamist Player

Kody is a reality TV producer's dream -- telegenic and charming on-camera. Photos of him from age 22 (when he wed first wife Meri, 19) through 27 (when third wife Christine joined the family) show a good-looking blonde man with a ladykiller's smile. In a group photo, his three wives arrayed around him dangle like ornaments hanging from his family tree.

Now in his early 40s, he could easily be confused with that guy who starred in the Fox/WB Network show Grounded For Life with his long shaggy locks, scruffy facial hair and "I wanna rock!" glint in his eye.

He may be devout in his faith, but he comes across as an aging player who oh-so-conveniently found a religion that enables him to get it on as often as he wants with as many women as he can bed and wed.

When we first meet Kody he's speeding down a highway in a two-seater sports car, nattily dressed in suit, striped tie and striped shirt.

He clearly has the air of a man who's used to being the center of attention.

In comparison, his wives are the backup singers to his lead vocals. Rather than being the proverbial peas in a pod, each possesses distinct and different qualities. Their roles are almost iconic in their specificity -- the conciliator, the nurturer, the breadwinner -- and reveal different facets of what it means to be a wife.


Meri Brown, "The Bait"

Meri, the first Mrs. Brown, didn't go to college after marrying Kody as she was intent on having a big family. But only one child was born to the couple and though it's never said, infertility seems to be the issue. Now Meri's studying psychology and hopes to work with at-risk teens.

At various times during the first episode, Kody refers to Meri as "the bait," the one who lured the other sister wives into marriage. Clearly, Meri is the most accommodating wife, serving as chief tooth-puller when loose baby teeth worry two of the kids, and smoothing the way for the family.

As Meri tells us, "When you're looking at this lifestyle as 'what can I do to help you? or what can you do to help me?' it works out fine."


Janelle Brown, Career Woman

Janelle, the second Mrs. Brown, was raised in the mainstream Mormon faith and didn't know anything about polygamy when she became friendly with both Kody and Meri. She called them her "polygamist friends" and at 22 years old came around to the idea of sharing a husband when she thought about marrying Kody. Janelle is the career-minded wife who has always worked.

She's frank about preferring to work outside the home rather than caring for the kids and doing housework, and credits her sister wives for giving her that freedom. Because her income is essential to the family and she works a 12-hour day, she's treated almost as a second husband. When she gets home, dinner is waiting for her courtesy of her sister wives. Since she leaves for work so early, her own teenage son handles the morning routine of waking up his siblings and cooking a hot breakfast for them.


Christine Brown, Stay-at-Home Mom

Christine, the newest and youngest Mrs. Brown, is the family caregiver and stays home with the kids. She even homeschooled all 12 children until a school for children of polygamist families opened up nearby.

She seems as interested in having sister wives as having a husband, saying, "I was raised in a polygamist lifestyle so I wasn't interested in single guys." She admits to being enamored of Kody while acknowledging the attraction wasn't as intense on his end. "I loved him tons, and he kinda loved me," she explains, saying that it took years for Kody to decide to marry her.

Christine, well aware of her special status as the newest addition, is the wackiest of the three wives. Her children are saddled with oddly-spelled offbeat names à la the Palin kids. She won't have a toaster in her part of the house because she claims toasters kill more people annually than sharks, yet she's unable to brown a slice of bread in the oven without burning it each morning.


Revealing Body Language

Each wife makes a point of mentioning that none of them gave birth until all three wives had joined the family, and the fact that all the children were born and raised together holds great significance for them. It's a point that subtly foreshadows the conflict that shapes the remaining episodes of the show.

Next page: Homewrecker...or the Next Mrs. Brown?

Kody's body language already indicates to us that the marriages have gone stale in his eyes. The way in which he makes physical contact is telling. He gives each wife the same ho-hum double-pat embrace (a bear hug followed by a thump thump on the back with an open hand) as if to say, "Yeah, we're good."


"The Big Announcement"

Each woman clearly wants more time and attention from their shared shaggy-haired he-man, but in this first episode Kody's mind is elsewhere -- on the "big announcement" the show keeps teasing and the family keeps alluding to.

When it comes it's a doozy, revealed during a family pow-wow: Kody's been seeing a new woman, Robyn.

"I feel like we should invite Robyn into our family....She has not consented and I have not asked," he tells the kids, many of whom look uneasy but are clearly expected to react to the news with good Fundamentalist Mormon joy.


Rockin Robyn, Nest Shaker

We learn that Robyn is 30 years old, divorced with three kids, and raised in the faith. One complication: she lives four hours away. A slender brunette, she's physically far different than Kody's other wives and that may be why he's interested in making her his fourth Mrs. Brown.


We follow him during one of his long-distance dates and when he arrives at her doorstep, he seems almost giddy in his feelings for her. No bear hugs or love pats here. Their fingers intertwine as they dine at a restaurant by candlelight. He's behaving like a lovestruck teenager, and he's a little too old (and a little too married) to be acting this way.

How the sister wives handle this turn of events is the theme of this season's show.

Kody's trips to see Robyn take time away from his current wives. That fact doesn't sit well with them although they put a brave face on it.


If Daddy Ain't Happy...

In fact, maintaining Kody's good cheer seems to be the number one priority of the sister wives, as it determines the health and well-being of the entire family. If Daddy ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

Meri notes that bad moods in one relationship carry into the others. "When he gets ornery with another one he gets weird with me," she says, explaining that it impacts the sexual nature of their relationship.

Christine too seems to have learned to tamp down her desire and her jealousy. To her, polygamy requires more than simple physical attraction to the man; it must include emotional attraction to the sister wives as well. As she sees it, problems arise in "situations when the girl comes in wanting the husband, and that rips a family apart."

And she puts a polygamist spin on an old idea about how to save a marriage. In single marriages, if there's trouble and a wife wants to keep it intact, she'll often resort to having a baby; but in 'plig' (slang for polygamist) marriages, she believes "If you have two wives and you're having a problem, marry a third." For Christine, avoiding conflict is the priority. "I only wanted to be a third wife, not the first or the second...because it sounded the easiest," she admits.

There's one heartbreaking twist to Christine's story. As the series opens, she's very pregnant with Kody's 13th child and has already named it Truely Grace.

(Now how is this acceptable that he's involved with another woman while his third wife is pregnant? Could he not keep it in his pants until after the baby is born?)

Janelle, the only wife to figuratively wear any pants in the family, doesn't say much about the Robyn affair other than to deliver this bon mot: "When Kody first told me, I had a spiritual witness...that this person was special."


Is It Cheating if It's Polygamy?

The first episode raises more questions than it answers. How did Kody meet Robyn if she lives so far away? With no explanation, we're left to speculate. Was it online? Did they connect through some sort of Fundamentalist Mormon Match.com? (Why doesn't anyone call this "cheating" or is it okay if the cheater ends up marrying the cheatee?)

How is Robyn is divorced? Can wives of polygamists divorce their husbands, and on what grounds if cheating is not an issue?

When a polygamist decides he's going to start "seeing" another woman, isn't that technically cheating? Does he have to say, "Oh, honey, I'm shopping around for another wife, but don't worry -- you get final say before she comes home to live with us?" The first episode did not make clear whether Kody's sister wives have any say in his decision.

Why did Kody marry three women before having children? That makes him seem less interested in starting a family and more interested in establishing a harem and hooking up with multiple partners under the guise of "faith" and "marriage."

Why can't Fundamentalist Mormon women have multiple husbands? Why don't we ever see that?


Worth Watching Once

Would I watch the show again? Probably not, although it's interesting to see how energetically these women push the fantasy of a happy polygamist family. One admits that she wants her own children to have freedom of choice in marrying, whether they are with 'single' guys or 'pligs.'

In the end, it's unsettling that TLC -- once an acronym for "The Learning Channel" -- chose to build a show around what's essentially an illegal practice. Depicting polygamy in a fictionalized series such as HBO's Big Love is one thing. Filming a real-life polygamist family whose goal is to get us to "think differently about marriage" is another.

Sister Wives makes gay marriage look tame in comparison, and shows us what polygamy is truly about. Not procreating in the name of God and bearing children to further the faith, but getting it on with as many women as a man can get away with -- the younger, prettier and thinner, the better. This doesn't benefit women but instead puts power in the hands of the polygamist. It maintains the status quo and says to women that if they don't satisfy their husbands, the men will go elsewhere...and with God's blessing, no less.

Accepting this practice isn't religious tolerance. It's condoning behavior that's antiethical to nearly every faith that sees the sanctity of a committed relationship as existing between two people.

And when that commitment is violated -- in Sister Wives and throughout society -- women typically get the short end of the stick.