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The Deliverance of TLC’s Sister Wives

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Kody Brown is a Mormon on a mission: to demystify and destigmatize polygamy. He has cast himself as the Pied Piper, the Don Quixote, and the Martin Luther King, Jr of plural marriage, a righteous man defined by family and faith. 

The Browns—Kody and his wives (in order) Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn—came out as polygamous in 2010 when the show premiered. Their step into the public light was a legitimate political event. Most of America only knew polygamy in its fictionalized, Big Love version and in its most abject form, where a patriarch takes many wives, builds a sprawling compound for his ever-growing family, and the movements and rights of girls and women are severely restricted.  The Browns are not like those polygamists. Kody and his four wives did the morning news shows and lots of other media to present another, more mainstream spin on polygamy:  “we’re just like you, but there are more of us.” In the interviews and the early episodes, we hear Kody’s spiel over and over: they are not deviants, but good God-fearing people who happen to believe in an unusual family structure. This normalization is not that compelling. They are quick to primly dodge questions about “sex stuff,” the answer to which might have improved the show. In the first three seasons they lived in Lehigh, Utah, and after Kody brings Robyn into the family with a spiritual union they need an arc. Enter the law. 

The Browns’ exit Utah and move to Las Vegas in the dead of night during season four. Kody leads his “goat rodeo” (his term) of a family: sullen teenagers, stressed-out wives, and rambunctious children all pile into trucks and minivans that feels like they rented every vehicle in the Hertz parking lot. Moving is a motif in the series. The hastily packed boxes, the almost professionally packed U-Hauls—U-Hauls are essentially recurring characters—the Brown’s exodus to Vegas was payback for them coming out as polygamists. Utah laws stated that a man can’t be legally married and be in common-law relationships with other women. 

At its worst the show was a pulpit for the terrible Kody, who never tires of explaining how their splinter fundamentalist Mormon sect is distinct from the mainstream LDS church which outlawed polygamy long ago, and is still pretty darned embarrassed that their ancestors practiced it with such relish. The Browns also explain often how even though they are fundamentalist Mormons they are not part of the FLDS splinter sect terrorized under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, now serving life in jail on charges of child sexual assault related to his underage wives. Other charges used against polygamists are welfare fraud, as the “single” wives file for food stamps and other benefits from the same government that brands them criminals. 

Despite Kody’s conservative-libertarian tendencies—the man loves guns and hates government—the Brown’s openness about their family’s tribulations has been both a slog and an education. In the recently concluded Season 17, Sister Wives suddenly took a turn for the interesting. The twisted scenario blending female insurgence and male malfeasance with a dash of gaslighting has made the show perfect for a domestic suspense junky like me. 

Trust me. Put your TBR pile aside, fire up TLC, and prepare to be bored and overwhelmed by the decade of lukewarm drama served up by Kody and the Browns. Their 18 children range from five to old enough to know that their father is toxic and prone to totalitarian rage when challenged. A doting father to all his children until puberty, Kody loves nothing more than a pregnant wife and a home birth. One reason for the family’s implosion is because he unabashedly prefers and protects the younger children—and their mother, Robyn, the youngest and most compliant wife.  

It has not been easy to stick with Sister Wives, as polygamy is as monotonous as monogamy the way the Browns practice it. Until the current drama began to unfold—around season 13 and 14, when the family moves from Las Vegas to Flagstaff, Arizona for no reason except Kody’s inability to settle, a trait which masquerades as a noble crusade to find his family a magical place they can all live in together forever. This desire mirrors the Mormon view of marriage as on earth and in heaven, where spouses are reunited to spend eternity together. Mormon marriage is a long game.

If you are a completist, in season one Kody and Robyn, wife number four, chastely court and get spiritually married. If you are itchy to get to the family’s implosion hit season 15, when the Browns have just moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, giving up their don’t-call-it-a-compound-cul-de-sac in Las Vegas to live in scattered houses in different parts of town. Kody hard sold Flagstaff to his wives—really, there was a presentation and a whiteboard—and they fell into line, some more enthusiastically than others. Meanwhile, Kody is seeing another woman on the side: a draftsman designing Kody’s Dream House, an insane McMansion where each wife has her own suite of rooms and there is common space as well.

The Brown family is hardly a democracy, but Kody recognizes the dream of One Big House isn’t going to come true. Only one wife (Robyn) is enthusiastic about his idea; Christine is adamantly against it; and Meri and Janelle blow it off which makes Kody furious. Meanwhile, the family is divided—which makes Kody furious—scattered in rental houses around charming but expensive Flagstaff. Kody is so hellbent about Flagstaff the family doesn’t sell their houses in Las Vegas before moving, and they sink money into a parcel of land, Coyote Pass, where they are going to build houses instead. At least one wife claims she heard angels singing when they looked at the property, but I suspect it was just an unsparing howling wind that kicked up every time Kody and his wives hold a socially distanced family summit. 

When Christine decides to leave Kody after years of struggling in a marriage where she was clearly miserable, she sets off a chain of events which has Janelle and finally Meri leaving Kody and the family. It feels post-apocalyptic to longtime viewers, and has turned into a full-on tabloid sensation. 

Whether there will be another season and who would be on it is one of the hot topics in the department of Sister Wives speculation. As the once bubbly Christine prepares to divorce Kody and leave the family, the Browns seams split slowly and then rip. Christine and Kody are not legally married. That honor now belongs to Robyn and was sold to the other wives as necessary so he could adopt her three children from a previous marriage, but now it looks like a nefarious plan to funnel family funds to Robyn and give the other wives, particularly Meri, the shaft. Christine’s divorce is a matter of knocking her ruby slippers together and saying, “I am no longer married to that angry patriarchal twit” three times. Robyn the scold helpfully points out more than once that Christine will not technically be divorced according to their faith until she “gets physical” with another man. It’s an odd thing to keep mentioning.

Really, Christine wants to escape from a marriage Kody has declared will never be intimate again. She desperately wants to move back to Utah, where several of her adult children have settled. When she and her children cross the threshold of her new rental house in the Salt Lake City area, she is back to her effervescent self. 

But I am a reality TV watcher who knows my own mind: I don’t want to see love triumph; I want to see it destroyed. I wanted to see these marriages struggle and fail, as I wanted to see Christine and Janelle free of Kody’s drama and gaslighting. The fantasy of Sister Wives is a fantasy about family as big tent, full of love and support and acceptance, where no one is ever lonely and you are always welcomed back. Yet the reality of the Brown’s life—the constant money problems, the incessant moving, the real estate woes, the tyranny of Kody’s rules and strictures—made for good enough television. But the family’s disintegration is a direct result of Kody’s stringent COVID guidelines and his cardinal sin of playing favorites. I suspect the subtext of the COVID crisis was vaccines. Janelle said she was vaccinated, as were at least some of her kids. As both Kody and Robyn eventually get COVID—hers worse than his, as she had a preexisting condition—the assumption that they were not vaccinated is an easy conclusion. It also makes all of Kody’s odious rules make emotional sense.

Now that the show has momentum, one question is flooding the Facebook groups and TikTok feeds which have fueled this revolution. What is next? The receipts are circulating via tabloids and YouTubers: the family’s finances are a litany of poor decisions, with tax liens, bankruptcies, creative financing of houses and defaulting on mortgages, and several ridiculous failed businesses. We wait for for Robyn’s ex, who is related to the Jeffs, to ride out his NDA and then spill whatever she is hiding about her first marriage. We want more respect for Janelle (universally recognized as The Smart One); to know why Christine’s daughter Truely has transition lenses in her glasses; and for Meri to recognize she has a wild crush on her female BFF, Jenn, and for them to move to Parawan, Utah and run the B&B Meri bought without the family’s help or support (excellent spinoff idea one). We wait for Robyn to admit she is not an innocent but a master manipulator, the Lady Macbeth of Flagstaff. We want Kody to stop grooming Robyn’s daughters (there is a picture of him kissing a teenager full on the mouth which is firmly in Woody Allen territory); for Christine to get together with her celebrity crush, Shamar Moore (another great potential spinoff show). We want to know if Kody’s office is really his car, and does he have a job? We especially want the dirt on the Typhoid Mary of Sister Wives, Robyn’s unseen nanny who exposes them to COVID (there is much muttering among the other wives about what the nanny does as Robyn only has two kids who need nannying and she’s always home). We are curious about whether polygamy can work or if it always yields a basement wife (Christine, who watched the kids while Meri and Janelle worked) and a favorite wife (Robyn, formerly the young hot wife). 

The dramatic irony is that Utah decriminalized polygamy in April 2022. The release of Meri, Janelle, and Christine from Kody’s dogma and drama must be disorienting but all of them seem better off. Christine has a lightness about her we haven’t seen in ages; the restoration of her natural girlishness is refreshing after all the sadness and anger. Janelle also seems much happier: she was always a person who could figure it out, much more competent than her errant husband. The best spinoff would be a show about Christine and Janelle—not sister wives, but best friends who have the freedom now to do, and marry, as they please.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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