By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; C06
Even when eggs need to be scrambled for 12 children at breakfast, a curious and sometimes enviable calm permeates the polygamist household in "Sister Wives," TLC's much-talked-about and refreshingly frank new reality series set in rururban Utah.
Listening to Kody Brown and his three womenfolk describe their marital arrangement -- Kody is legally married to his first wife, Meri, and the other two, Janelle and Christine, are "wives" in a spiritual sense; they're all in their late 30s and early 40s -- one is struck by how common-sense they make it sound, if just for a fleeting moment.
They (and their producers) anticipate our questions and answer honestly, but the show mistakenly assumes from the outset that our questions are only about sex and jealousy. ("Jealousy is our Kryptonite," Kody says.) "We don't go weird," Meri says, batting aside the very notion of threesomes or foursomes.
Really it's the domestic minutiae that makes "Sister Wives" worth watching: the food supply, the house floor plan, the division of labor, the minor spats. Details jump out at you; small subtextual clues that the show doesn't stop to explore. For example, the wives drive hulking SUVs or minivans, but what does Kody drive? A sporty, two-door Lexus coupe, with no room for a child's car seat. In a way, that's all you really need to know about this family.
Kody works "in advertising sales," he tells us cryptically. Which is better than poor Janelle, whom we follow to her 12-hour workday at an office . . . somewhere . . . doing something. The cameras wait outside. It seems the Browns aren't eager to reveal quite all, and much of "Sister Wives" can feel like a calculated performance on their part, especially Kody's, with his Prince Valiant locks, church-rock goatee and a touched-by-an-angel perma-grin. His self-satisfied mugging grows old quick.
"Sister Wives" is aptly titled. This is a show about three women (perhaps four, hold on) who are more than capable of speaking for themselves, and do. They embrace "the Principle" of polygamy even when it unnerves them. Meri is studying for her long-delayed college degree. Christine, who is pregnant with baby number 13 (her sixth; a daughter already named Truly Grace), keeps hearth and home with the most gusto of the three wives, and she is most willing to voice her discontent when things get tense.
Which they immediately do.
After 16 years of tri-connubial bliss (Christine joined the family in 1994), Kody is now gaga for Robin, a 30-year-old divorced mother of three, who lives five hours away. God has revealed to Kody that he should ask Robin to wed him and join the family. The Sister Wives are understandably conflicted, to say nothing of the teenagers in the family, who grew up with three moms and never expected a fourth.
In spite of the fact that it's on TLC, "Sister Wives" is carefully made and almost qualifies as a documentary. Every unseemly moment is quickly supplanted by an event or emotion that is, objectively, as tender and revealing as . . . well, as anyone else's reality show.
If given a choice among TLC's freakish array of programming, which includes the Gosselins (of "Plus 8" infamy), the Duggars (of "19 Kids and Counting," an ongoing environmental disaster in Arkansas) and a number of large or atypical families that include argumentative dwarfs and/or cupcake entrepreneurs, I'd be tempted to move in with the Browns before any of the others.
For anyone who might be championing polygamist rights (is anyone?), the Browns are a public-relations gift from above. Not for them the calico dresses and Laura Ingalls Wilder accoutrements, nor are they afflicted with the strange home perms that hold the God-fearing Duggar girls in sway. There is no compound, no stockpiling for the Apocalypse. The Browns live in a sprawling ranch-style house designed by a "plig" homebuilder: Each mom has a floor and a kitchen. Dad visits each of the marital beds on a scheduled rotation -- and they've all been together going on 20 years. Beat that, everyone.
There's a Wii in the main living room, and the Browns prefer to dress in contemporary Target-style fare -- jeans and cute tops. To their credit, the wives seem especially adamant that their children grow up to make their own choices, apart from the clan, which disarms some of the more sinister stereotypes about polygamist sects. When the camera is on, the Browns are glowing with plig pride. ("Plig," as the four adults explain, is a fun slang word for the lifestyle.) Their children go to a plig cooperative school. And there's plig humor: "We are sisters of the same mister, but he's my brother of another mother."
Yes, it's a lot like "Big Love." I would find it hard to believe that the Browns haven't seen HBO's fictional melodrama, and that they've not only picked up some cues from the show, but also ascertained from its appeal (and recent news events) that the moment is ripe for some positive plig spin.
TLC is only too happy to provide this, in exchange for the ooky allure of it all. As with "19 Kids and Counting," religion is the barely acknowledged elephant in the room, something the producers seem intent on cutting a wide circle around, lest viewers be scared off. Like the Duggars, whose politics and values have been all but scrubbed clean, we see the Browns (who say they are Fundamentalist Mormon) in moments of bedtime prayers, but we do not explore the nitty-gritty of their faith, politics and other core beliefs.
The Browns know that their definition of marriage is difficult to describe to outsiders; yet the outside world cannot help but be curious. It's a mysterious and fascinating taboo, crossing as it does the primal wires of biology, culture and religion -- and don't forget law, although the Browns are not technically violating any.
Kody and his wives have recognized that a TV show can be a lucrative exchange. We've already established in American society that although a reality show can be unsettling, it's not a sin, and no one's stopping you.
(one hour) debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. on TLC.