One of the benefits (or detriments, depending on your point of view) of being a communication scholar is a built-in excuse to spend excessive amounts of time watching television. I try to take in whatever seems to generate buzz, especially when religion is featured (and particularly Mormonism in all its shades). So of course I couldn't miss the first season of TLC's Sister Wives, a "reality" show about the Browns, a fundamentalist Mormon family living in Utah.
Although the show itself is not technically great in terms of production values, it has received quite a bit of media attention due to the family's unorthodox practices: by the end of the first season, Kody Brown has four wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and the newest addition, Robyn (though he is legally married only to Meri). Moreover, there are thirteen Brown children (with an additional three from Robyn's previous marriage). The show, according to TLC's website, is about "how they attempt to navigate life as a 'normal' family in a society that shuns their polygamist lifestyle." In fact, the whole of Sister Wives revolves around the Browns' desire to be seen as "normal," contrasting with production choices designed instead to showcase their abnormality. The juxtaposition of what they *say* they are and what they are shown to be, then, provides the drama that makes Sister Wives entertaining to watch.
But at what expense? Perhaps we'll never know, since the Brown family is unable to speak without mediated gatekeeping. This is, of course, what takes the "reality" out of reality television: we hear what we are allowed to hear about their life and choices, through conscious editing choices intended to maximize viewership rather than to tell the "truth" about the Browns situation.
In fact, one thing we don't hear about is why they are polygamous in the first place. Any meaningful discussion of the Browns' faith or religion-- specifically, fundamentalist Mormonism-- is surprisingly missing from the show's content. We hear that Meri and Kody met at church, for instance, and we know that they are not mainstream Mormons (who officially disavowed polygamy in the 1890s). But fundamentalist Mormon beliefs supporting polygamy and procreation as religious obligations are unspoken, and religion is not represented as the central focus of the Browns' lives (and in all fairness, may not be in reality). The family prays together briefly, and mention is made of Heavenly Father, but never in a didactic mode.
I'm curious why religion is missing from Sister Wives-- either it is in fact possible to be both fundamentalist Mormon and polygamous but not religious, or the Browns are more religious than they seem and the show's creators are shying away from the topic. Is it too complicated for Americans to understand, or might they just not care? Is it more interesting/tv worthy to make polygamy about sex and power instead of religious obligation? Or maybe those in charge of production don't buy the religious explanation, don't think its important, or don't understand it themselves.