“Married at First Sight” is an elaborate, fascinating, highest-stakes game show that proposes that being open to love is as important or more so than the recipient of that love. It also suggests that other people — maybe even strangers — might be able to save you from your own bad instincts. (Fear not, old-school family purists: Next month, FYI will debut “Arranged,” a docuseries about couples in family-arranged marriages.)
It’s too early in the season to know whether this round of couples will ultimately accept each other. One change from last year, though, is that so far the panel of experts — a clinical psychologist, a sociologist, a sexologist, a chaplain — is barely heard from, a serious mistake. Last year they explained their decision-making process at length. This year they’re guiding things from the shadows.
If “Married at First Sight” aims to depict what good can come from following instructions, “Surviving Marriage” and “Neighbors With Benefits” show what happens when couples lose sight of the rules and structures that have kept them intact.
The other part of love that’s a choice is the choice to keep working at it, and that’s at the core of “Surviving Marriage,” which has its premiere Tuesday on A&E. In each episode, a struggling couple is abandoned on an island for several days and put through a series of hilariously symbolic exercises — carrying bags full of rocks that represent “emotional baggage,” and so on. The first couple is Cleburn, steroidal and sour, and April, timid and resentful. Both have been unfaithful. The show clearly favors April, letting her tie Cleburn to a tree at one point as a way of allowing her the freedom to make her own decisions (and also allowing her to tie Cleburn to a tree).
“Surviving Marriage” has a spiritual cousin in A&E’s “Love Prison,” which took couples who only knew each other online and exiled them to an island to see if they were truly compatible, and also in “Sex Box,” the British show whose Americanized version recently began on WEtv, though on that show, the island is a literal box and the shared exercise is sex.
Perhaps an exhibitionist streak shouldn’t be undervalued in matters of the heart, and accordingly, maybe the impulse to be filmed during your romantic travails might indicate a tendency toward honesty: If you are willing to be transparent with your partner, maybe it is not such a big deal to also be transparent with the world.
“Neighbors With Benefits,” the excellently titled reality drama that begins Sunday on A&E, revolves around the members of a swinger community in Ohio. The show strenuously insists that participation in “the lifestyle,” as it’s enigmatically called, is predicated on following sets of rules.
The disruption in the premiere comes when Brittany, who is married to Cody, sends private, provocative texts to Mike, who is married to Maria. This is a violation of protocol, and it earns rebukes from Tony, the paterfamilias of the community, who doesn’t want his free-love fief upended.
“Neighbors With Benefits” is premised on the presumed illicitness of swinging but mostly dwells on the negotiations that all of this freedom requires. What these couples do more than anything is talk, and Brittany’s out-of-bounds actions leave Cody feeling left out and disrespected. Like the couples of “Married at First Sight” and the 36-questions experiment, all he wants is a little transparency.Continue reading the main story
“The only true love is love at first sight,” wrote the 19th-century novelist Israel Zangwill. “Second sight dispels it.” His thoughts on marriage at first sight were never recorded so succinctly.
On Thursday evening, however, people will be able to make up their own minds as Channel 4 brings together couples who have never met based on analysis of their supposed compatibility.
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It is a well-trodden path for television dating shows – but then comes the twist: the first time they meet will be their wedding day. After legally marrying, Channel 4’s couples will head off on honeymoon, before moving in together and being given five weeks to decide whether to remain married or to divorce.
It is, the show’s producers claim, a “groundbreaking social experiment”. To others, however, it is a recipe for disaster that betrays a remarkable lack of understanding of the nature of commitment and marriage.
Based on a Danish show, Married at First Sight has also caused a stir for broadcasters in countries including the US and Australia.
And, while none of those couples married for the Danish original stayed together, as of March this year two partnerships from the American version are still going strong, while one couple matched by the show in Bulgaria, another in Germany, and two in Finland reportedly remain a couple.
Perhaps one of the most surprising successes in the US was Jamie Otis’s marriage to Doug Hehner. During the programme, Otis was visibly upset at meeting her betrothed and said – repeatedly – that she was not attracted to him. But the couple decided to stay together.
“On our wedding day, I was certain I made the biggest mistake of my life. I was trying my best to be pleasant and friendly. Meanwhile, I was wondering why on Earth I ever thought it’d be a good idea to marry a complete stranger,” said Otis, who had also appeared on the dating programme The Bachelor.
“Now, we both look back laughing because it was absolutely insane to marry a stranger, but it was the best insane decision I ever made,” she told wedding planning website the Knot earlier this year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Channel 4’s decision to give the format a British airing has faced criticism from traditionalists. The Marriage Foundation said that the programme’s fundamental flaw is that it “hugely undermines commitment”.
“A key aspect of commitment involves embracing one choice and abandoning other choices. Making a clear decision about the future is the foundation stone of a successful marriage,” the group said.
“Going in with one eye on the exit is a recipe for disaster. Even if couples don’t begin with thoughts of divorce … having the option of a six-week exit route is hardly a whole-hearted unambiguous endorsement of lifetime commitment.”
But, defending the programme, Channel 4’s deputy head of features, Alex Menzies, said: “A considerable amount of energy has been spent on working out what makes people tick in relationships; I find it really fascinating. The hope was to use the insight that science can give us to find a better fit than you could under your own steam.”
He insisted that the channel took the marriages very seriously, adding: “That aspect allowed us to ensure that we maximised the chances of casting people for whom it was equally serious.” Menzies said that the producers deliberately sought to avoid any religious criticisms from groups by only including civil ceremonies.
Casting the Channel 4 production has not been without its problems. There were reports that the show had to be repeatedly put back due to a lack of couples, and because some of them got cold feet. But, according to the producers, 1,500 people eventually applied and, from them, 15 were taken forward.
In the opening credits of the first episode, which is due to air at 9pm, viewers are told that “with 15 million single people in the UK, there have never been more of us living alone”. The answer for some, according to the voiceover, is “an arranged marriage based on science”.
A series of experts match the couples based on various criteria, including their DNA, physical data – such as hip to waist ratio in women and hip to shoulder in men – and their intelligence.
Married at First Sight is not the first programme to try and bring strangers together. In 1999, a couple married live on air on a show presented by Jeremy Kyle that ran on a Birmingham-based radio station. They parted ways soon after and the bride went on to marry Kyle.