Polygamists in the Spotlight

From true-crime to prime time, the transfer of the polygamy issue from the daily news to cable television was somewhat of a natural progression. Polygamy has always been in the media’s eye; in recent years polygamist compounds in Utah, Texas, and more were infiltrated by police – to the enthrallment of the general public.

Naturally, HBO, leader in innovative shows, picked up on this fascination, and with its 2006 TV show “Big Love,” polygamy officially became entertainment.

Whether it’s because every American has some secret fantasy about some alternative lifestyle, or that some sort of American Puritanism keeps people grossly invested, polygamy and Mormonism are certainly the next big topics on television. Films and docudramas about polygamy or the Mormon religion in general have been around for years, but never so much on TV. With the news that TLC is jumping on the bandwagon and premiering its new show “Sister Wives,” the trend isn’t slowing. But there is one important difference with “Sister Wives:” It’s more than just a TV show, it’s reality television.

TLC managed to find a polygamous family, a man with three wives and looking to add a fourth, who are willing to be on national TV. In spite of the illegality of polygamy in the family’s home state of Utah, one of the sister wives told TVGuide “I just didn’t want to raise my children with the same fear that I was raised with, I’d rather be open and just open to our society.”

Whether or not police can or will intervene in the matter is uncertain, but the Brown family, which includes 13 children, is putting a face to the seemingly secretive world of polygamy. Generally associated with the news coverage of compounds, false prophets, sexual abuse, and notorious court cases, “Sister Wives” has the chance to show a different side to the media carnival.

“Sister Wives” is something more genuine, say, than the polished drama and sexual explicitness of “Big Love.” Attempting to change misconceptions that the public may have from “Big Love’s” scripted plots might be futile – especially since “Sister Wives” seems poised to be a reality-based version of exactly what’s going on in “Big Love,” by the end of season four.

As “Big Love’s” Henrikson family was struggling with the possibility of a fourth wife (the Browns are about to get married… again) and coming out to the world (Bill, portrayed by Bill Paxton on “Big Love,” runs for senate to expose his family, while Kody joins reality television), the comparisons are evident.

But “Sister Wives” hopes to make a splash, and possibly shine a new light on their situation. As family patriarch Kody Brown told TV Guide, “It’s a story that needs to be told… We’re telling a story the way that it is.”

What TLC did for ridiculously large families (“19 Kids and Counting” and “John and Kate Plus 8”), little people (“Little People,” “Big World and Little Couple”), and child pageants (“Toddlers in Tiaras”), they can certainly do for polygamy. These shows are more often ridiculed than they make dents in viewers’ opinions of the issue – whether it be child tanning or a serious religious belief.

Capitalizing on the appeal that polygamy has had for viewers thus far may prove fruitful, or may fall flat, for TLC. But TLC knows its audience, and as with their other semi-controversial family shows, it will probably, ultimately, prove to be the former.