Sister Wives Season 17 Is a Triumph of Documentary Filmmaking

It took 16 boring seasons, but now the prophesy is fulfilled

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
the gospel according to Kody

If you’re 17 seasons behind on the long-running TLC documentary series Sister Wives, take this blog post as a sign from the God of the Apostolic Brethren that you may start now. You don’t have to go into the archives – you only need to watch the last five episodes.

Enjoyment of this riveting family drama requires no context other than this: In 2010, patriarch Kody Brown and his wives Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn wanted to show the world how polygamy could be functional in the 21st century. By 2022, Kody and his wives —all living in different rental homes in Flagstaff, Arizona — are eating crow, admitting to the world that their original situation was not tenable for them or their children (in order of birth: Logan, Aspyn, Mariah, Madison, Mykelti, Hunter, Paedon, Garrison, Dayton, Gabriel, Gwendlyn, Aurora, Ysabel, Savannah, Breanna, and Truely). Christine has left the family, moving to Salt Lake, and taking 11-year-old Truely with her.

Kody, a control-freak whose longtime sole obsession with having sex (or “intimacy”) with his most favored wife Robyn has transmuted into a similarly intense Covid 19-induced agoraphobia, is requiring the family to shoot every scene on their iPhones without a film crew. Unintentionally, Kody has had his first stroke of divine genius with this directorial decision. What was once a fairly glossy production (although — and no disrespect to these women who clearly are spread thin, what with running a small village and all — there never did seem to be a hair or makeup budget) is now cinéma vérité. It’s real and unfiltered.

One of the major set pieces of the 17th season is a mostly unfilled bookcase in Christine’s house, which would be filled with thrift store books on really any other reality program besides early Vanderpump Rules. Most of the important conversations so far have taken place in front of this unadorned shelf: how Kody never felt attracted to Christine; how Christine used to be smitten with Kody but now feels nothing; how families tend to rewrite their own histories as peaceful and rosy when they were anything but; how Kody wants 50/50 custody of Truely, even though he didn’t seem to want that when they lived in the same house for the first years of her life; hilariously, how Kody’s biggest fear is that Christine will meet an “opportunistic” boyfriend in Salt Lake that will try to scam the family out of all their “money.”

If this sounds too bleak for you, trust me that there are as many moments of levity as there are harrowing terrors, at least in the last five episodes. The worst parts of the show are when the wives and Kody natter endlessly about the apparent hilarity of Janelle buying a “fifth wheel” trailer to live in, but the editors still have some tricks up their sleeves to humiliate Kody without actually being in one of his homes.

In one confessional, Kody explains that it’s okay that he lets a nanny into his house with Robyn every day despite his strict quarantine protocols because it’s easier to pay her $20 an hour than to lose his own work, which he claims is worth $200 an hour. None of the wives seem to have any idea what Kody does all day.

In a scene from the last episode, the entire family serenades Ysabel, who is leaving for school in North Carolina, to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” As in the theme song to The Hills. Everyone cries.

Most of the laughs and heartache come in the form of Christine, a woman who I always felt seemed nice enough but is now the beating heart of the show, as well as the audience proxy. In her confessionals, she’s enlightened for the first time in 20 years of marriage. She’s had enough of Kody’s idiocy, manipulation, and neglect, and she’s moving to suburban Salt Lake, goddamnit! She’s a feminist icon, and I can’t wait to see Connie Britton get an Emmy for a Hulu show based on the first five episodes of the 17th season of Sister Wives.

So please take this blog post as a call to action — the five episodes in question are available on Discovery Plus. I’ve suffered through this program for 16 boring and banal seasons (with the exception of season 7, where one of the sister wives got catfished, which ruled), but this season has clawed its way to the title of the best show on television with the word Wives in its title. That’s really saying something.