Sunday night, HBO's critically acclaimed drama Big Love (9 p.m. ET) launches its fifth and final season. For many of us, this show was our first detailed look at a modern-day polygamous family. Prior to this show, we'd only glimpsed this sketchy phenomenon through news reports about child brides and secret, cult-like compounds.
From the first episode, a singular theme has shot through Big Love: Today's modern polygamist isn't about all that shady stuff. These days, a polygamist is a loving, good-intentioned family man who rejects practices like marrying 14-year-olds and adhering to sexist creeds. Sure, all is not perfect in the Mormon community. (If you've ever seen this show, you know that's the understatement that ate the state of Utah.) But the emotional core of Big Love rests squarely on the nice-guy shoulders of the family patriarch, Bill (Tom Paxton). And he stands against the no-good, false prophets who cling to the bad old ways.
Then came Sister Wives -- TLC's reality TV depiction of a modern-day polygamous family. It arrived last fall, during a hiatus between Big Love seasons; still, you couldn't help but compare the show's real-life polygamist, Kody Brown, with Bill. When Brown and his four wives were asked, during their media rounds, why they decided to allow cameras into their complicated household, they always cited a desire to gain greater acceptance of what they say is an upstanding, faith-based, modern-day polygamist lifestyle.
Asked if they considered the legal trouble they would probably face after publicly flouting their lifestyle, Brown's third wife Christine said that "raising children in a closed society could cause a lot more damage than any kind of legal process." But no sooner had TLC announced the upcoming premiere that the local police, in Lehi, Utah, were investigating the family for evidence of bigamy. Months later, in October, the Lehi police brought formal charges against them.
And there was other fallout from their decision to go public. Later that month, one of the wives, Meri, lost her job in the mental health industry as a direct result of Sister Wives. "They felt that they needed to protect the company, I think," Meri said in an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Ironically, Big Love's final season will dwell on the fallout after Bill, freshly elected to the Utah State Senate, goes public about his polygamous family. True, it's a cooler way to out yourself than filming a reality show. But the plot still feels a little like art imitating reality-TV life. Previews for the season hint that the wives and children don't cope well with the public reaction that follows. Now viewers will probably be watching Big Love, and thinking of the Sister Wives family, instead of vice versa.
It will be interesting to see if Big Love's ratings rise now that so many viewers have the TLC show as a frame of reference. Both shows have intrigued viewers and raised awareness about polygamy. Both have succeeded in pointing out all the everyday, domestic issues we all face -- whether your family includes one wife or four. But has either show changed people's minds about polygamy?
Do you think the success of Sister Wives will drum up further interest in the final season of Big Love? Chime in below!