Celebrity Wife Swap

Celebrity Wife Swap debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern, before moving to its regular time slot tomorrow night at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Despite its eyebrow-raising name, Wife Swap, the ABC reality series that has quietly gotten away with over a hundred episodes since 2004, has usually been a harmlessly amusing affair. There have been the occasional flare-ups or particularly unlucky personality clashes, but for the most part the show doesn't stray too far from its premise: the wives of two different households switch places for a few days, try to learn from or impart their wisdom to the new family, then everyone goes home, possibly having learned something. Wife Swap never claims to be a life-changing show, or even a particularly salacious one, it's just a little social experiment where oftentimes the biggest dramatic setpiece is a few dirty socks.

ABC seems to have shelved the series for the time being to make way for its newest incarnation: Celebrity Wife Swap. And while I'm usually prepared to dismiss anything that has the word “Celebrity” tacked onto the title, it turns out that Celebrity Wife Swap is profoundly watchable reality television, light and silly as cotton candy without the upset stomach afterwards. For a show whose premiere features two controversial and/or wacked-out public figures (Ted Haggard and Gary Busey) the exploitation and gawking is kept at a minimum, the laughs (and there are a lot of them) are subtle and occasionally brilliant, and the show lets the personalities of its subjects steer the ship, rather than some externally imposed confrontation quota.

The premiere swaps self-proclaimed “Busey whisperer” (and Busey fiancée) Stephanie Samson with Gayle Haggard, wife of Ted, the anti-gay evangelical minister turned (alleged) male-prostitute-soliciting meth user, turned... guy on Wife Swap​? The Haggards are a sad, repressed, but perfectly nice-seeming lot, but that's probably because we never see their fire and brimstone side (though Ted's smile is the stuff of nightmares and I am bothered by how his mouth seems perpetually smeared with Vaseline.) Busey is Busey, and Samson is a big-hearted kook with an à la carte assortment of spiritual beliefs. (The couple asserts, among other things, that they have been together in 31 previous lifetimes, including one in which they were the parents of Roman emperor Constantine. Busey identifies as Christian, Samson as Jewish.)

The wives (or fiancées, or previous life partners) are not told who they are swapping with before they arrive at their temporary home; which leads to some pretty cute moments as they poke around the houses. I particularly loved Stephanie looking at the Ten Commandments on the wall, and the Bible study schedule on the fridge and guessing the family is Christian, then finding the hot tub and adding a slight modifier: “Maybe they're groovy Christians.”

Perhaps the producers thought that the issue of spirituality and religion would become the hot-button topic at the center of this particular swap, but all four parties are relatively open and accepting. Gayle sits in on a spiritual cleansing with “Indian Bob,” Busey's guru or shaman or something, and is a total sport about it despite some reservations (no pun intended.) You have to give this sad woman some credit, if a man in full Native regalia showed up in my backyard and told me I looked like a lost soul, I'd probably be slightly less patient. Stephanie, meanwhile, has to take Gayle's place leading a women's Bible study group, but the biggest disaster there is that she doesn't know how to read verse citations and mispronounces the word “disciple,” and everyone has a good chuckle.

While Busey's well-documented insanity is definitely on display, and is certainly what the producers were hoping would entice viewers to tune in, the more interesting thread that Gayle starts to unearth is his oblivious self-absorption. When the two go out for dinner Gayle hopes that she might get a chance to share a bit about herself with her temporary husband, but is instead treated to another batshit monologue. When she finally asks if he has any questions for her, he repeats the same one he asked when they first met: “What athletic sports did you play as a child?” (Answer, I shit you not: barrel racing.)

Likewise, Ted's obviously conflicted sexuality comes up, and is the only instance in the episode when things get a little heated: Stephanie reads a passage in Gayle's post-scandal memoir Why I Stayed that appears to liken homosexuals (particularly the one who accused Ted) to Satan, and asks Ted point blank if he thinks gay people are evil. It's more than a little wincey, and I found myself desperately hoping that she would drop it; having a debate with Ted Haggard over gay marriage seems like a pointless endeavor, especially given that the guy came out as bisexual a year ago. But Stephanie eventually lets the issue go, and gets onto more important matters, like connecting with his youngest son, who obviously has some misplaced anger issues.

In the end, the two couples sit down at a picnic table and talk about what they learned, a mercifully short exercise that ends in Ted's offer to marry Gary and Stephanie(!?) when they decide they want to make their spiritual bond a legal one. It's at this point in the show that you realize you just spent an hour with two definitely insane men and their infinitely patient partners, and everyone got along just fine. Weirder still, you don't begrudge any of them. Perhaps Celebrity Wife Swap, moreso than Celebrity Rehab or any other PR stunt masquerading as entertainment, is what embattled stars ought to sign up for when they need to remind the world they're people too. By not forcing its subjects to learn valuable lessons or have big meltdowns, it resembles real life more than most other shows of its genre.

Stray observations:

  • The only stray observation that matters is Gayle's acrostic poem for Gary. “Gary: Genuinely accepted, Appreciated, Respected, Yay!”

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