My girlfriend is addicted to reality shows about extreme behavior and she's fascinated by Mormon fundamentalism so when we discovered that TLC was introducing a reality show about a Mormon man with three wives and thirteen children—that he knows of!—it was inevitable that we’d watch it and I’d end up writing about it.
Kody, the star of Sister Wives and the warm, life-giving sun around which his wives and children orbit, is fascinating in his banality. Like the rest of his family, he’s almost oppressively All-American, a well-scrubbed, perpetually smiling blonde with long, majestic locks that seems to belong on the head of a nineteen-year-old in 1987, not a man with thirteen children and another on the way.
He’s good-looking, affable and unfailingly optimistic but it can be difficult at times to discern exactly why his wives seem to worship him so. And worship him they do: the show may be called Sister Wives but he’s unmistakably the show’s core.
The pilot episode of Sister Wives doubles as an infomercial for fundamentalist Mormonism, or a recruitment film. It’s an attempt to put the best possible face on a lifestyle that is, to put it diplomatically, frowned upon by much of American society. And also illegal.
“Meet Kody and the Wives” paints such an uncritically flattering depiction of polygamy that the question soon morphs from, “How can people live that way?” to “Why doesn’t everyone live that way?” You’d imagine that sharing a husband with two other woman would invite an ugly brew of jealousy, paranoia, envy, competition, bitterness and many of the other ugly, ugly emotions that dominate my life.
Judging by Sister Wives, you would be wrong. The wives here just couldn’t be happier about being part of a miniature harem. They methodically set about dismissing just about every conceivable criticism anyone could make about their lifestyle. Do they get jealous at the prospect of their soulmate making sweet love to another woman twenty feet away from way they sleep? Why heck no, they’re just delighted that such a wonderful man is being sexually satisfied; it doesn’t seem to matter who brings him the rapturous joy that is his birthright.
Do the women feel weird about their children calling another woman mother or leaving the care of their children to a sister-wife so they can go make money to support their overflowing brood? Of course not, silly. The more the merrier! Yes, everyone seems to have swallowed the Kool-Aid and come back for the seconds.
Everyone is so disconcertingly chipper and happy that I was forced to confront my own cynicism regarding human nature. I could not accept the notion that polygamy could work out anywhere near as smoothly or as it seems to here. I don’t know if that says more about the show’s need to put a fluorescent happy face on a tricky, controversial, loaded situation or my own pessimism regarding some of the uglier elements of romantic relationships.
This points to the central problem of the pilot: there is no conflict. Conflict is the essence of drama and Sister Wives seems to be populated exclusively by can-do, goody two-shoes Ned Flanders types working in perfect unison because they all love and accept each other so much.
The family seemingly inhabits a hermetic, self-contained fundamentalist Mormon universe where their friends and neighbors all share their beliefs. True, the family must hide its lifestyle from the non-Mormon world but in the first three episodes, the non-Mormon world doesn’t factor in at all; family is all; everything else is secular nonsense.
With that in mind, the show introduces an element of mystery, if not quite conflict, when Kody announces that he’s got a big announcement to share with the family that could change all of their lives. It’s a blatantly manipulative attempt to inject drama and theater into what often threatens to become the Mormon Smile Time Happy Hour but it’s also effective.
Sister Wives tips its hand pretty early that Kody seems to think his only real problem entails not having enough wives or children. So he announces his intention to court, and then marry a fourth wife, a foxy 30-year-old with three children, including an autistic son.
This promises to raise the level of tension and conflict in the home from “non-existent” to “simmering”. As with Jon & Kate Plus Eight, much of the appeal of Sister Wives lies in watching ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The people here are so normal they’re borderline unnerving; nobody can be this chipper all the time, can they?
The polygamists sometimes acknowledge that their lifestyles does, at the very least, bring with it some tricky variables but they almost immediately dismiss some very real concerns out of hand by parroting the party line that polygamy is awesome and Kody is, at the very least, a minor deity.
My girlfriend found the show a lot more interesting than I did. As someone who has long been fascinated by Mormonism, she found the day-to-day, mundane details of life inside a radical sect inherently interesting whereas I found the mundane details of life inside a radical sect well, mundane.
What do you guys think? Can the family really be as happy and non-neurotic as they appear? Does a show like this inherently glamorize polygamy? Is it irresponsible to even air it? Is it judgmental and bigoted to disapprove of this lifestyle, even if it's a lifestyle that disapproves of other lifestyles?
There are precious few cracks in Sister Wives’ impeccably crafted façade of perfect happiness forever but in one episode, a wife tearfully concedes that she has no problem whatsoever with her husband marrying and having sex with another woman but that she just about died inside when she discovered that Kody sealed his engagement to his fourth wife with a kiss (TARDY SPOILER!). In her mind, kissing an unmarried woman is an almost unforgivable transgression but marrying her husband and becoming one of four sister wives is acting in accordance with God’s plans. If the show’s future episodes contain more moments of prickly, complicated truth and bruised emotions like that Sister Wives could ultimately prove itself worthy of something more than morbid fascination.