As a network, TLC often walks that fine line between informative and exploitative: Do you care about the relationship between these two little people, or are you more interested in the novelty of little people making chocolate? Do you want to see the 600-pound man lose weight, or are you just using him to make yourself feel better about your relatively minor belly?
Enter Sister Wives, the hot new reality series from TLC. That’s right—we’re mere steps away from the inevitable 19 Wives and Counting. Sister Wives follows the polygamous Brown family: Kody; his wives Meri, Janelle, and Christine; and a combined total of 13 children. I originally wrote down 12 in my notes, which means the show is counting the yet-to-be-born-but-already-named Truely. That, or TLC slipped one of the Gosselins in with the others and hoped no one would notice. (Ooh, spin-off idea! Kody picks Kate Gosselin as his new wife in—title’s negotiable—Kody & Meri & Janelle & Christine & Kate Plus 8 Plus 13. You’re welcome.)
The premiere of Sister Wives was sort of an hour-long FAQ to get us better acquainted with the Browns: Are they Mormon? They’re part of a particular Mormon sect that still practices polygamy. Do the wives constantly fight for their husband’s attention? Not really. They’ve got a rotating system. Do they occasionally, you know, all play together? Heavens, no. That would be too weird.
Many convincing arguments surfaced during the first episode. Meri described the family's built-in support system: She knows that if she were to die, Janelle and Christine would help raise her kids as their own. Then there’s Kody’s motto, which sounds like something TLC told him to say but fits nonetheless—“Love should be multiplied, not divided.” That’s a message I can get behind, even though polygamy isn’t something I’m personally interested in. I’ve got no moral qualms with spreading the love, and I appreciated the parents talking about how they want their kids to make their own choices, to marry for love and not from obligation.
But something's still not right—and there are certain elements of polygamy that the first episode of Sister Wives did not address. Why is a husband allowed to have multiple wives, if a wife can’t have multiple husbands? These women have jobs; it’s not like they’re Kody’s captives. But there’s still a pretty obvious inequality issue that I can’t overlook. Kody gets a different wife every night. The wives? They wait their turns. I’m not saying anyone is being horribly oppressed here: I’m just saying there’s a necessary element of subjugation that makes me uncomfortable.
Hopefully, Meri, Janelle, and Christine will assert themselves more loudly, especially as Kody tries to bring another wife into the arrangement. There was definite dissent here, no matter how casually Kody tried to deflect it. I got the sense that marrying another woman wasn’t really anyone’s decision but his—the discussion felt like a formality. If Robin does join the family, which the previews appeared to indicate, here’s hoping the wives either accept a little less time with their husband or do something about it. Who knows: Robin could be a force for good. Maybe she’ll even convince Christine that toasters aren’t death traps.
So is Sister Wives informative or exploitative? Honestly, it could go either way. I'd say TLC's (cold, corporate) heart is in the right place for a change—these subjects are clearly trying to justify and defend their alternative lifestyle. But in doing so, they may unearth a different kind of exploitation, one that's tougher for viewers at home to watch.
What did you think? And will you keep watching?
Follow TV.com writer Louis Peitzman on Twitter: @LouisAtTVDotCom