Few pop culture unions have been as tumultuous as the one between reality television and the institution of marriage. Reality shows have taken cues from every facet of the culture with varying degrees of success, but they’ve never managed to do marriage justice. In fact, reality shows have treated marriage with such cynicism and contempt, it’s baffling that such a vehement opposition sprang up against same-sex marriage while a television producer like Mike Fleiss isn’t taken to task for his part in sullying the tradition.
Fleiss is the creator of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, but his first television creation was Fox’s Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire?, which courted controversy in 2000 by having 50 women prostrate themselves before a shrouded tycoon in the hopes of marrying him on live television. Multi-Millionaire, as well as the marriage born out of it, became an ugly tabloid sideshow as the equally detestable husband and wife slung mud at each other. But it did big enough ratings for Fox to turn Multi-Millionaire into its own subgenre, and it gave Fleiss the industry muscle to launch the Bachelor franchise at ABC. Elaborate marital stunts, like The Littlest Groom and Married By America, have largely fallen out of favor. But The Bachelor still does respectable numbers for ABC and along with Lifetime’s UnREAL, it serves as a living symbol of the embarrassing history of marriage on reality television.
This fraught history does no favors to A&E’s reality series Married At First Sight, which on its surface looks like the worst the genre has to offer. The bluntly descriptive title sends up a red flag, as does an intro package describing the show as a “social experiment,” the euphemism most often used to describe especially repugnant reality fare. It’s a shame Married isn’t the standard bearer for the marital reality subgenre, because it’s one of the most insightful and romantic shows on television, and at its best, it’s instructive for anyone who has or aspires to lasting love.
Adapted from a Danish format, Married follows the lives of three couples who agree to marry after being paired by a panel of experts including clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, sociologist Pepper Schwartz, chaplain Greg Epstein, and sexologist Logan Levkoff. The experts sift through a pool of applicants and find the three men and three women best equipped to go the distance, and the pairs agree to wed before their family and friends after being introduced to their spouses at the altar. After a honeymoon, the couples move in together for six weeks, then decide if they want to stay together or divorce. There’s no cash or product-placement vehicles to be won, and the only prize available is a lifelong partnership for those able to beat the odds.
Married is different from most shows of its ilk in that the participants are normal, relatable people, none of whom appear to have ulterior motives for appearing on the show. And unlike a show like The Bachelor, the basic concept behind the exercise isn’t far off from how people find love in the age of data-driven online relationships. The experts pair the couples based on common and complementary personality traits, relationship goals, and temperaments, and the couples are told of all the careful consideration that has gone into the matchmaking. The methodology isn’t explained in detail, but there’s far more transparency to Married’s process than there is to the algorithms of dating sites like Match, eHarmony, and Ok Cupid, the latter of which admitted to manipulating compatibility scores to boost flirtation among its members. The consequence of years of romance self-help books, Cosmo quizzes, and mathematically generated relationships is the widespread notion that some people are objectively better matches than others. Despite a slow and steady drop in the divorce rate within the last two decades, the fear of choosing wrong still looms large. Putting the choice in the hands of an algorithm or a panel of experts makes the choice far less stressful, and if it doesn’t shake out, you can always blame the formula.
The only thing the Married participants do that any modern single person doesn’t is get married immediately upon meeting the person identified as a potentially compatible partner. The magic of the process lies in that commitment, which at six weeks is long enough to start resembling real life, but short enough to assuage fears of making a mistake with permanent consequences. Married is close to wrapping up its third season, and it’s had a decent rate of success considering the unusual circumstances. Of the three couples matched in season one, two of them—Doug Hehner and Jamie Otis and Jason Carrion and Cortney Hendrix—remain married. The show struck out badly in season two, so badly that none of three couples stayed together, and Jessica Castro wound up filing a restraining order against her TV husband, Ryan De Nino, after he allegedly made death threats against her. Had the seasons aired in the opposite order, the social experiment might have screeched to a halt. Still, a 33 percent success rate for an experiment in which complete strangers marry, then get acquainted with the added pressure of television cameras, isn’t shabby at all, and probably represents better odds than most people face on dating sites.
Season three looks on track to maintain Married’s one-out-of-three success rate at the very least, but with the exception of De Nino and Castro’s horrifying flame out, there’s as much to be learned from the failures as from the successes. The season one couples had especially illuminating experiences. The season’s most dramatic success story was that of Hehner and Otis, who appeared doomed from the start. Otis, a Bachelor alumna, was so repelled by her new husband, she burst into tears in the lobby of the venue and had to be consoled by her friends and family. She refused to make any physical contact with him whatsoever—forget consummating on the wedding night, she wouldn’t even hold his hand. Hehner was all in from the beginning, and week after week, he demonstrated his patience and his devotion to the process. By the time the reunion special came, Otis was visibly in love with her husband and said how excited she was to have his children.
By contrast, the season’s only failed couple, Monet Bell and Vaughn Copeland, followed the opposite trajectory. They were lucky enough to have an instant physical attraction, which they followed to its natural conclusion on their wedding night. But the relationship started to hit the skids as soon as the honeymoon, when Copeland pouted about what he felt was inadequate attention and affection from Bell. Their sex life was healthy throughout their brief relationship, but it was the only aspect they managed to figure out. Bell and Copeland’s marriage, on its face, seems to offer lessons about the dangers of rushing into intimacy, but it actually says more about the importance of communicating relationship expectations. Bell meets Copeland’s mother and learns his father passed when he was at a young age, and that Copeland greatly admired his parents’ relationship growing up. Bell, a successful career woman, bristled at Copeland’s insistence on rigid, old-fashioned gender roles. But while she interpreted those preferences as male chauvinism, from the outside looking in, it seemed more like Copeland wanted to replicate the marriage his parents had, and failed to communicate that to Bell, or even realize that was something he needed to communicate.
Season three’s couples have had varying degrees of success, with Tres Russell and Vanessa Nelson poised to steal the title of the franchise’s most adorable couple. With the season nearing its end, Russell and Nelson are the only pair to consummate their relationship and the only couple consistently having fun together and making plans for the future. It helps that both of them are impossibly attractive, and had the immediate physical attraction that the other two couples—Neil Bowlus and Samantha Role and David Norton and Ashley Doherty—lacked. But as Bell, Copeland, Otis, and Hehner proved in the first season, a natural sexual attraction isn’t the key to success on Married At First Sight. The key to success is a wholehearted investment in the process, a process in which the partners are disabused of the corrosive notion that you’re always supposed to like your partner and never be annoyed or baffled by them. Many failed couples fall in love only to later realize the person is a complete stranger to them, but in Married, there’s no confusion about the fact that your partner is an unknown, complex person whose needs you have to figure out how to satisfy even when you don’t completely understand them.
The relationships on Married are more about commitment and hard work than serendipity and butterflies, and the conflicts and triumphs feel so real as to make the show less narratively satisfying than it could be. As much as the audience might want the couples to work through their initial reservations and sprint toward a storybook conclusion, every episode is a frustrating combination of peaks and troughs. Some weeks the couples are getting along marvelously, other weeks not, but they make incremental improvements. What keeps them going is the idea that they were deemed objectively compatible, and in their moments of despair, the participants often repeat “The experts matched us for a reason” like a mantra. In order to bear out the experts’ wisdom, the couples have to provide their own commitment, patience, resolve, and generosity of spirit. It’s an approach that could lead to lots of successful relationships between people matched on dating services, even if the results have been manipulated.