Fall TV Guide: “Sister Wives,” The Real-Life “Big Love”

Last night, I had dinner over at my mom’s apartment with my brother and his girlfriend and we got to talking about reconsidering the legality (or illegality) of plural marriage, i.e. polygamy. Putting aside personal feelings on the idea of polygamy, what we ended up concluding was that the government shouldn’t consider marriage a religious institution at all, as it violates the notion of separation between church and state, and that marriage, if anything, needs to remain a legal union between two individuals — no more — so that the monetary benefits don’t reward those who marry multiple people for so-called religious reasons or otherwise.

So why am I blathering on about plural marriage anyway? Because last night was the series premiere of “Sister Wives,” the reality show about a man and his three (soon to be four!) wives and their flock of children living in Utah. And, for the most part, it was boring.I’m a big fan of “Big Love,” so I think I was expecting a little more out of the story of Kody Brown, an ad exec, and his family. In some ways, the reality show echoes what we’ve seen in its fictional predecessor — a modern, everyday family that just wants to lift the veil (or drop the magical underpants, so to speak) on the secrecy behind their polygamist lifestyle without shame or fear. Brown — who, I suppose, is handsome in an acid-wash jeans and floppy highlights sort of way — and his family are traditionalists when it comes to the polygamist faith, but they do not support the more controversial aspects associated with their religion, namely arranged marriage and the exploitation of children. It’s worth noting that Brown and his family are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, a very different Mormon fundamentalist sect from Warren Heffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The most interesting aspect of this show, just as on “Big Love,” is the relationship between the sister wives, not their relationships with their husband. Perhaps that’s why TLC decided on the show’s name — knowing full well that it’s the bond between these women that truly makes their unusual family structure work. Meri, who is Kody’s first (and only legal) wife, has been blessed with just one child, despite the polygamist tradition of growing a large family — it has just not been in the cards for her. One particularly touching moment was when Meri cried and said she knew that if anything ever happened to her, her sister wives, Janelle and Christine, would raise her daughter in her absence. What’s disturbing about that statement, of course, is that her daughter’s father is not the first person she looks to as a backup.

Meri, having married Kody when she was only 19, never went to college and is now planning on pursuing a degree is psychology — her sister wives help make that possible by picking up the slack around the house while she studies. My favorite moment of the show was when Christine declared that she did not own a toaster because “toasters kill more people than sharks every year,” and then promptly set off the smoke alarm when she attempted to toast bread in the oven. Meanwhile, Janelle works outside the home and Meri and Christine ensure that her children are fed dinner before she comes home from work late. The women in this family are the glue and, while it’s heartening to see them supporting each other, it’s hard understanding what in the hell they see in Kody. I guess, maybe, we’ll find out? [TLC]