“Why did they get married?!” For weeks, cable’s FYI network has made viewers of its sleeper hit reality series “Married at First Sight” repeat that question, as they followed the exploits of three couples who met for the very first time when they exchanged vows in the pilot episode. The series, based on a Danish show of the same name, bills itself as an “extreme social experiment,” in which strangers are paired based on compatibility test results and asked to live as husband and wife for one month before decided if they’ll remained married or file for divorce.
Since Jezebel’s Kara Brown has detailed all the reasons why this is an insane premise with little valid sociological merit (sample size too small, selection process too dubious, shameless ratings grab), I’ll stick to assessing the show at face value. Please understand that this task requires a suspension of disbelief as vast as the distance between zipliners’ bodies and the canyons over which they soar.
Now that we’ve established that, we can discuss last night’s finale, in which the three couples — Cortney and Jason; Jamie and Doug; and Vaughn and Monet — make their declarations of divorce or continued matrimony. Full disclosure: I just discovered that this show existed yesterday and lost an entire afternoon binge-watching in the run-up to its two-hour conclusion. (An added warning: If you intend to watch this series online and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading here.)
For the uninitiated, twentysomethings Cortney and Jason are the youngest couple and, by far, the most compatible. They move into a neutral space together and immediate begin collaborating on decorations, navigating Jason’s hectic schedule as an EMT to have “date nights,” and snogging. Jamie and Doug, in their 30s, start out as the least compatible, when Jamie sobs and panics upon seeing him for the first time. “I’m not attracted to him,” she whispers to friends, while wearing her wedding dress. Doug, with a steady disposition and an inexplicably stubborn affection for Jamie, doesn’t mind that she can barely stand his touch during their first days together. Vaughn and Monet are also in their early 30s. They have an immediate sexual attraction and can’t seem to agree on much else.
Watching a show like this in an afternoon makes an already rushed process even more fraught. Never mind that the series is obviously scripted, its scenarios tightly controlled, and the actions of its cast often dictated by the four-person team of experts who paired them. Never mind that the most obvious lesson “Married at First Sight” teaches us is that America is only about three to five years from greenlighting a real-life Truman Show. If you stick with it, like the couples are constantly being urged to do, this program will suck you in, in spite of yourself. And as you root for the couples to work through their issues and “beat the odds,” you become increasingly aware that the experience isn’t really about them. It’s about you.
It’s no secret that romance-themed reality series aim for a lovelorn demographic. In her brilliant New York Times essay about ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” franchises, Roxane Gay nails the appeal:
We will watch, mocking the spectacle, secretly trying to fill the ways we are hollow. […] Few among us want to die alone, holding that hollow space inside us. The real shame of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” of the absurd theater of romantic comedies, of the sweeping passion of romance novels, is that they know where we are most tender, and they aim right for that place.
Where “The Bachelor” leverages its participants’ insecurities by framing itself as a brazen competition with other with a marriage proposal as its ostensible “prize,” “Married at First Sight” inverts the process, beginning with marriage and removing the level of agency that dating tends to provide. This show assuages “die alone” insecurities by starting its relationships with “till death do us part”-style declarations and a sense of legal obligation.
Now that both models exist — the dating scene on acid and nuptials on speed — our culture has a broader picture of what kinds of intense loneliness, hope, and fear can drive us to begin or end a marriage. Perhaps more significantly, we have new means by which to informally examine public attitudes toward marriage, its sanctity, and how much its social value continues to evolve over time.
If their onscreen performances are to believed, these couples aren’t strange or extraordinary. They are workaday people whose long shifts at jobs, traumatic upbringings and past failed relationships have left them both weary and wary.
Why, then, did they marry, sight unseen, time unspent? Why would anyone start at an end and work his way backward, in hopes of arriving at lasting love? Because the odds seem just as even as they’ve been in past failed relationships. Because too many bad partner picks can make anyone second-guess her own judgement. Because the promise of free, near-constant relationship counseling can be tempting when you have no earthly idea what you’re doing.
All is fair in reality-show romance with the possible out of quickie divorce. I won’t spoil the outcomes of each curious couplings. I’ll just say that, at the end of last night’s finale, the four-person team of “experts” seem fairly smug about “marriage-at-first sight” as a viable relationship option. FYI seems to think so, too, as the show has been cleared for a second season. I won’t go as far as saying that skeptical viewers of this show will leave it thinking that strangers picking their marriage partner might not be as batty as they thought. But having watched these couples work through communication barriers, trust issues, and the limits of attraction, viewers will certainly wonder what they would do, if they were faced with the same final decisions.