Reality TV Loves Polygamy!

Robyn Sullivan and Christine, Kody, Meri, and Janelle Brown taste wedding cakes. Courtesy of TLC

The Browns are a fairly typical, supersize, reality-TV family, with 12 kids (and another on the way), astronomical grocery bills, and the burden of having to approach a visit to McDonald's as a full-blown logistical crisis. The difference with the Browns, as explained in terms as goofy as possible by head-of-household Kody, is that "she's a sister from the same mister," he says, wrapping his arm around his daughter, "and he's a brother from another mother," doing the same with his son. Translation: the Browns are polygamists.

The Browns, who live in a single-family home that is secretly three conjoined apartments, star in the new TLC show Sister Wives, which captures the family's day-to-day life. It's essentially an unscripted answer to HBO's Big Love, but unlike that show, in which the harried patriarch Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is practically crushed under the weight of his tripled domestic duties, Sister Wives casts a more favorable light on polygamy. We don't see Kody popping so much Viagra that he should keep it in a King Solomon Pez dispenser, as on Big Love. It's a sunny slice of life that borders on becoming an infomercial.

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Given reality television's tendency to trade in subtle (if not overt) mockery, the Browns should, by all rights, be withered by the camera's cynical eye. Take, for instance, A&E's Hoarders, which documents the filthy, cluttered lifestyle of compulsive pack rats. These people are invariably depicted as psychologically troubled loners who have alienated anyone close to them with their aberrant behavior and must be set right. It's hard to imagine a depiction of hoarding as a lifestyle choice with its own benefits—"When I want to read that June 1984 issue of Reader's Digest, I'll know just where to find it!"

Unless, of course, there was a family of hoarders. Reality television almost always avoids casting judgment on families. Choices that would typically be framed in a way that allows the audience to moralize when individuals make them are no one else's business when they take place within a family unit. The Coles of TLC's One Big Happy Family are all obese (though they've slimmed down), but weight loss isn't the show's raison d'être; it's merely one facet of their family life. There's no drill sergeant belittling their food choices and prodding them through obstacle courses, as you might see on Bravo's Thintervention. While scorn was heaped on single Nadya "Octomom" Suleman, no one seems to mind the Duggars of TLC's 19 Kids and Counting, which practically has to change its name every season to accommodate a new addition.

Part of the success of family reality shows is the inner conflict they create in the audience. It's possible to admire and loathe the plentiful Duggars, to fondly recognize our own family foibles in them, and also to write them off as, well, child hoarders. Jon and Kate attracted 10 million viewers for the episode in which they announced their separation. The audience was probably split evenly between those hoping for reconciliation and those with an appetite for destruction. But unlike those reality shows about individuals, the producers didn't try to tell us which camp to fall into. There's safety in numbers.