Reality Bites: Sister Wives

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There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

The assumption that one man having multiple spouses is in and of itself freaky enough to warrant a reality show is correct in the sense that Hollywood has decreed things once considered mundane (styling hair, fishing) are worthy of putting on the air. I imagine production meeting discussions along the lines of: "Hey, this guy auctions abandoned storage units." "Oh yeah? Well *this* guy has four wives." It's a no-brainer.

But looked at another way, the main criticism of Sister Wives appears to be: without the gimmick, there's nothing to recommend the show at all. Every one of the principals is dull beyond belief, with little to no drama to otherwise keep us engaged. The lack of [televised] conflict among the women would almost be refreshing here in Year 7 A.R.H. (After Real Housewives), except for the whole shared husband thing.

And in the end, this may be polygamy's ace in the hole concerning wider acceptance and/or legalization: on the surface, it looks just as boring as regular marriage.

Even before watching Sister Wives, I was desperately concerned about how Kody Brown and his four spouses were evading arrest for their flouting of matrimonial laws. How relieved I was to learn he's only "legally" married to first wife Meri. The others are bound to him through "spiritual unions," which sounds like something out of City of Angels (a movie almost as distasteful as fundamentalist Mormonism itself).

Defenders of this sort of thing like to point out everyone involved in the show had entered into the arrangement voluntarily, presumably to distance the Brown family and their ilk from less savory practitioners (read: Muslims). All well and good, except for the fact three of the Brown "wives" themselves had polygamist upbringings. Objectively, we all know America is the land of the free and the home of the Whopper, but I don't think anyone would argue growing up under those circumstances might lead to certain predilections.

The third season of Sister Wives is gearing up to start this spring, so I caught a few reruns from seasons one (involving Kody's courtship of Robyn, the fourth wife and Kody's first in 16 years) and two (the Browns move to Las Vegas, with attendant ramifications for the couple's 17(!) kids). Yeah, 17 children. Jesus, Mary and Joseph Smith, that's a brood right there. To their credit, at least they didn't give them all names starting with "K."

Initially, it's hard not to think Kody is sitting in the proverbial catbird's seat: there's no worrying about babysitters when he wants to take one of the four out (Janelle is the only wife with an outside of home job), his child-rearing duties are largely limited to providing sperm and one gimmick episode, in which the wives go out for the night and he demonstrates just how unwise having a dozen plus five children really is. At one point, Kody mentions, "we haven't screwed any of them up yet." Presumably because they so docilely perform the chores set out before them. Apparently breeding your own servants makes housekeeping a lot easier.

There are occasional tensions among the wives, who quite naturally favor their own children (some of them even express their own displeasure with the "polygamist lifestyle"). Kody also appears to favor new wife Robyn, perhaps signaling a change in preference from blondes to brunettes.

As pleasantly Sammy Hagar-ish as Kody appears, even TLC's patented glossing over of its subjects can't distract from what a selfish fuck the guy is. "Love should be multiplied, not divided?" Feel free to try that line when your wife finds out about your Ashley Madison account. He also goes to great lengths to point out his situation is "not an open marriage." I guess that means he'd have no problem if one of the wives decided to "spiritually unite" with another dude. I especially liked the episode where the wives took a night off and he complained, "It's been months since I had a guy's night out." You want a guy's night out? Buy some condoms and consider wearing one.

TLC also seriously downplays the underpinnings of the Browns' faith (they belong to the Apostolic United Brethren, a fundamentalist polygamist sect of the Mormon Church). Kody even says -- in the show's intro -- "We're not the polygamists you think you know." This may as well be coded polygamy-speak for "At least we're not raping 12-year olds on a compound in San Angelo." They may publicly denounce the behavior of FLDS-ers like Warren Jeffs, but there are a lot more like him out there than anyone involved on the show cares to admit.

I don't doubt the numerous "plural families" across the country are glad for the existence of a show that makes having multiple wives look just as ho-hum as a monogamous union, by downplaying the more sinister aspects of these polygamous sects, TLC is doing more harm than good. But then I guess it would be hard to sell a show with a more realistic tagline: "Sister Wives: Hey, We're Not *All*Child Molesters."

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