I Feel Nothing

07.09.14

Reality TV’s Arranged Marriage Fail

You’d think a show about strangers getting married would be an amusing antithesis to ‘The Bachelor.’ But the couples in ‘Married at First Sight’ feel more like lab rats than humans.

Watching a woman in a white dress and veil realize she just married the wrong person should be reality TV gold. And it is. Sort of.

Jamie Otis’ quiet but deeply realistic panic is perhaps the most redeeming moment of FYI’s Married at First Sight. It’s not a big, dramatic cascade of tears and wails, but the depressing dawning knowledge that she has voluntarily surrendered her choice in spouse to alleged experts. “I trusted all the experts, and I feel like they’ve failed me,” she says minutes after she marries Doug, a not-bad-looking guy she had never seen before and whom she finds wholly unattractive. It’s a moment of captivating, genuine human emotion that isn’t buried in the voices of the show’s so-called experts: a psychologist, a sociologist, a sexologist, and a humanist chaplain. It’s too bad there isn’t more of it.

Married at First Sight is the antithesis of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. ABC’s reality meat market is all about catty and competitive courtship with marriage as the final prize.

Married at First Sight is a lot less sexy. As far as I can tell from the casting special and first episode, this show is about the hardships of marriage and how difficult it is to cohabitate and love someone, especially when, you know, you’ve just met them. While there are reality TV shows about the struggles of tying the knot—WE’s Marriage Boot Camp comes to mind—there is a glut of shows about weddings (basically, TLC’s entire Friday night lineup) or ones where the engagement and subsequent ceremony itself is the pinnacle. There is something oddly refreshing and oddly romantic that Married at First Sight will focus on three couples to show that the altar isn’t the happy ending, but the beginning…of a lot of work.

Still, it’s very hard to feel emotionally invested in these couples, which is odd because any normal person should have a massive amount of sympathy for people being made to marry total strangers. Unlike The Bachelor, which so successfully builds an audience by making you root for or hate contestants, here it’s hard to muster enough curiosity to see if these couples will work out.

Part of this is because so much of Married at First Sight is about “the experts.” At least in the first two hours of this series, the self-righteous panel of specialists gets so much screen time, and it makes it hard to connect with the people who are actually getting married.

We’re ultimately left with candidates who are eager to commit to marriage, more than decently good-looking (despite Jamie’s reaction to her groom at the altar), and gainfully employed.

Sexologist Logan Levkoff, humanist chaplain Greg Epstein, psychologist Joseph Cilona, and sociologist, Dr. Pepper Schwartz spend too much time trying to make it seem like pairing up random adults in holy matrimony is not only a really great idea, but a scientifically-supported one. They stress that arranged marriages may very well be America’s answer to divorce. Cilona touts that American divorce rate is 50 to 60 percent while couples in arranged marriages have a mere 1 to 4 percent.

The experts claim (and really, really stress) that they are performing a great “social experiment.” Levkoff goes so far as to say, it has “the power to change the way we look at relationships.” The specialists constantly talk about the pressure they feel to make good matches. I kept wanting to scream at their self-righteous weightiness, “Really, you feel pressure? How about the two people willing to walk down the aisle in front of their loved ones and marry a person whose name they don’t know?”

This is especially annoying because their methods seem a little bit silly. Cilano talks about giving the potential candidates a personality test that can only be administered by “mental health professionals” and claims the CIA and FBI use it. Dr. Schwartz visits the homes of each candidate to see if their style of living can reveal whether they’d be a good match for each other. This was actually convincing, until she matched two people because Courtney has costumes for her burlesque performances and Jason wears costumes when he fights. (By the way, a burlesque dancer marrying a fighter in training should be perfect reality TV show fodder, but there is so much “scientific” back and forth about this “experiment” that I could barely remember their names during the episode.)

Because these first two episodes focus on the screening out of other candidates, it’s easy to lose track of the couples you’re supposed to be rooting for. The first hour is all about proving that the specialists took a rigorous approach to finding their couples. The producer says she first fielded her original pool of candidates with a “casting call for people who failed at love.” That was inadvertently hysterical and easily the best human solicitation description ever. As you can imagine, the people who show up consistently say they are frustrated with dating and are eager to find their true loves and settle down (join the club, kiddos).

The panelists then proceed to screen out anyone they deem unfit for marriage. Like a woman who says she’s between jobs, and another who essentially says nothing more vulgar than that she is good in bed. The show depicts these two women as bearing giant red flags when actually they seem pretty damn normal for the New York dating scene. So we’re ultimately left with candidates who are eager to commit to marriage, more than decently good-looking (despite Jamie’s reaction to her groom at the altar), and gainfully employed. This experiment already seems rigged.

The so-called scientific, sociological, and spiritual sorting just seem to reflect the trappings of reality TV, as does the show’s timeline of artificially structured relationships. The three couples apparently manage to experience “the classic lifestyle stories of newlyweds—from the honeymoon to early nesting to other relatable events of married life”—in only five weeks. Then, they have to decide whether to divorce or stay together. It’s hard to trust a sociologist or a chaplain who honestly believes in their professional heart of hearts that just over a month is enough time to experience all the stages of marriage.

The minds behind Reality TV have long tried to portray their shows as a form of “social experimentation” with scientific rigor to justify the crazy shenanigans they tempt people into performing for the sake of fame. When Married at First Sight does the same, it not only makes the show feel phony, but it dulls the potential for emotional investment. These couples feel more like lab rats than humans. While a show like The Bachelor manipulates your emotions, at least you feel something.