Some "reality shows" are designed to advertise wanton misbehavior and stupidity for its own sake. There's no "life lesson," just an exercise in how you can grade your own moral worth on a "Jersey Shore" curve.
That is not the case with TLC's "Sister Wives." For TLC (The Learning Channel, a misnomer demanding initials only), it was the usual slam-dunk oddball premise: Won't people be curious to see how four wives -- married to the same man -- get along in the same house? The show's stars, Kody Brown and his wives, want much more than fame and fortune. They want to make polygamy respectable, even legalized. The show was a surprise hit for TLC, drawing an average of 2.2 million viewers over Season 1 last fall. The polygamists have recognized the power of pop culture -- particularly television -- and are pouncing to normalize this abhorrent behavior.
If this was in any doubt, it was removed when Brown and Co. recently hired hotshot Washington lawyer Jonathan Turley and sued in federal court in Salt Lake City to get Utah's polygamy law voided. Brown and his four wives knew they were taking a risk of being prosecuted when they signed the deal with TLC, but it was all calculated, with an activist motive. Brown proclaimed, "While we understand that this may be a long struggle in court, it has already been a long struggle for my family and other plural families to end the stereotypes and unfair treatment given consensual polygamy."
Robyn Brown (wife No. 4) also said they wanted to make a political point. "It's OK for us to live this way, honestly. I'm sorry, but this is a nation of freedom of choice," Robyn Brown declared on National Public Radio. "We should have this choice, and I want my kids to know that."
Turley denounced Utah's law as an injustice: "There is no allegation of child abuse, no allegation of child brides, no allegations of so-called collateral crimes, but prosecutors have stated publicly that they believe the family is committing a felony every night on television."
Actually, "Sister Wives" isn't on TV every night -- thankfully, it's only a Sunday night show. But is TLC concerned? Hardly. It feels the Brown family's legal peril and courtroom activism only add a layer of "edginess" to the show. It doesn't matter one bit to TLC that it is the showroom for a campaign nuking the nuclear family. It felt no need to comment on the Brown lawsuit. All is fair in love and television.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, whose office would defend the statute, is skeptical. He called the lawsuit "somewhat of a PR ratings stunt for their show." That's an understatement when you consider that the polygamy law hasn't been used to prosecute anyone in eight years.
Local police in Lehi City, Utah, launched an investigation last September after "Sister Wives" made its debut on TLC. How could they not? They were dared to do so on national TV. Then they turned their findings over to the Utah County attorney to determine whether charges are warranted based on the state's bigamy law. Charges were never filed.
What's sad about this whole exercise is that media chroniclers of the Browns, from network TV to Oprah to blogs and wire services, routinely treat them as sympathetic figures. Every exotic alternative lifestyle is assumed to be progressive and therefore admirable and is not only to be tolerated, but welcomed. It's rare that anyone appears for five seconds on TV to protest the Browns and TLC. NBC's "Today" show has lent them two sympathetic interviews without opposition, and even allowed news anchor Natalie Morales to moonlight and interview the Browns for their own TLC special last fall.
It's even sadder that the political world would take this TLC show as an opportunity to propose further shredding the institution of marriage. On the liberal website Slate, blogger Jessica Grose blithely proposed, "Perhaps the best way to keep polygamous practice consensual and the power equal (between husband and wives) is not to just decriminalize it, but to legislate it ... polygamous couples could enter into contracts that are less like marriage contracts and more like commercial partnership contracts." Or, if we could borrow the TLC metaphor, like television contracts.
It is somehow not enough that the entertainment media would try to undermine traditional marriage and the traditional nuclear family in their bed-hopping soap-operatic scripted dramas. Now it's also the role of "reality" television to suggest that a man with one legal wife and three "spiritual wives" is exactly the same as you and me, and that perhaps our legal boundaries against polygamy are unwarranted and archaic -- as long as it scores 2 million in the Nielsens.
What about the 298 million Americans not watching?