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Television review: 'Sister Wives'

TLC show examines a real-life polygamous family.

September 25, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

I have seen the feminist revolution and it is … polygamy?

Watching "Sister Wives," TLC's latest addition to its collection of Very Large and Usually Homeschooled families, I found myself thinking not so much of HBO's "Big Love" as Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," in which a patriarchal revolution has left women literally second-class citizens, assigned tasks by the government.

The book came to mind not because Kody Brown, his three (and counting) wives and their 13 (and counting) children resemble such a society but because they seemed to embody its exact opposite. A matriarchy or, to use a Discovery Channel-like image, a lion pride.

Oh, sure, Kody bounces around kissing kids and keeping the conjugal schedule even-steven but he's a far cry from "Big Love's" mercurial authoritarian Bill Henrickson. All floppy hair and Hollywood smile, Kody's way too surferdude to take very seriously as a patriarch.

It's the three wives — Meri, Janelle and Christine — who form the solid center of the family and the show. Pulling teeth and moving armoires, making dinner and picking baby clothes, their bonds appear far stronger and more vital than the casual fondness with which they all treat Kody. All three of the women were raised either in or surrounded by polygamist families (the Browns appear to live, not surprisingly, somewhere in the Salt Lake area) and are tired of hiding or apologizing for a "lifestyle" that allows them more free time and familial support than any non-polygamous marriage.

Janelle and Christine say that it was Meri, Kody's likable, organized and very direct first wife, who drew them to become Browns. Janelle is unapologetically grateful that she can work long hours outside the home, which she enjoys doing, because Christine is happy to take care of the kids. Christine, who's about to give birth to her sixth child, never had any interest at all in being an only wife, or even a second wife. The third wife is emotionally the easiest, she says, adding that during her teen years, "I wanted the sister wives more than the husband."

It's impossible to believe that things work as smoothly as the Browns would have us believe — for one thing, there are 13 kids, ranging from teens to toddlers, and in the first three episodes all anyone talks about is the relationship among the adults. And when Kody decides to go a'courtin', his wives swing between loving the potential new sister-wife and hating the disruption it will cause in their lives.

But it's the matter-of-fact assertion that one man is quite enough for three (or four) women because what a gal really needs around the house is more women that takes your breath away.

Interestingly, religion is not at all a part of "Sister Wives." Beyond Kody's earnest (and no doubt lawyered) explanation that he is not a Mormon and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days Saints rejects polygamy, there is no discussion or portrayal of any sort of religion. "Lifestyle" rather than "the Principle" is how the Browns refer to polygamy. Though "childcare choice" might work just as well.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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