Big love

Marriage is great. It’s also very, very difficult. Even the most successful ones, it seems, rely on a trust predicated on equal parts blind faith, intimacy and love.

I’ve been married 11 years, and the dynamic I share with my husband is ever-changing, ever-negotiable, and ever-reliant on our willingness to listen, collaborate and compromise. This is just one of the reasons I’m fascinated not just with TLC’s new reality show Sister Wives, but also the fact that it’s bringing the network impressive ratings.

More than 2.3 million people tuned in to watch the show’s premiere, making it TLC’s best debut since the network rolled out the comparatively chaste Cake Boss.

Sister Wives chronicles the day-to-day life of a Utah man and his Big Love-styled family. Kody Brown, whom Utah police are investigating on charges of bigamy, claims to be legally married to just one woman—but he shares his home with 16 children and three othersister wives,” including his newest bride, Robyn.

The Browns live in a giant compound-styled home that’s divided into several apartments—one for each wife and her brood. Kody is the only family member without his own permanent apartment—instead he moves from apartment to apartment depending on the night.

The family insists that it’s normal—they’re just like any other American family! And, certainly, their everyday routine seems routine (dishes, homework, evening college classes for some of the wives) if you don’t think too hard about how the children attend a private school for polygamist families or about the passageways that connect those apartments, turning the home into a snaking minefield of marital negotiation.

And although the sister wives tearfully admit to the occasional twinge of jealousy, all insist that they are able to rise above such petty emotion for the better of the family unit.

It makes for compelling TV. The wives are briskly efficient and funny, the kids appear healthy and engaged, the husband nurturing and responsible.

And that’s the weirdest part. Through careful story framing, TLC manages to make the people of Sister Wives seem just like any other family—albeit one that’s likely way bigger than yours or mine.

The Browns are identifiable, relatable and seemingly all-American, and they fit right in with the network’s running motif: Big families (Jon & Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids & Counting, Sextuplets Take New York) with cheerfully mundane lives—a supersized slice of white-bread Americana.

But what if TLC aired a similar show about a polygamist Islamic family?

Or what if they probed deeper into the sect of the Mormon Church to which the Browns belong?

Even as the modern, mainstream Mormon Church excommunicates members who engage in polygamy (the church officially renounced the practice in 1890), there are still fundamentalist offshoot groups that live the lifestyle. And Sister Wives loses some of its circus-sideshow charm if you pause long enough to think about Tom Green, the Utah polygamist convicted in 2002 of raping a 13-year-old girl who later became his wife.

Likewise, the show’s premise becomes sobering when you remember the case of Elizabeth Smart, a Salt Lake City teenager kidnapped by polygamists who wanted the 14-year-old girl as a bride.

And Sister Wives suddenly doesn’t seem so cheekily all-American if you admit that a similar show about a Muslim man with many wives would, at best, draw fierce protest and, at worst, prejudicial and uninformed comments about the Islamic faith.

I’ll keep watching—it’s simply too mesmerizing to turn away—but I won’t buy TLC’s agenda that what I’m seeing is healthy, fun or even remotely ordinary.