5 Feb 2024

Brace yourselves, Married At First Sight is back

6:20 pm on 5 February 2024
Married At First Sight Australia 2024 promo image

Married At First Sight Australia returns to New Zealand screens tonight. Photo: Channel Nine

By Alexia Santamaria*

If you get a kick out of knowing other peoples' private business, then you'll probably have tonight circled in your calendar. Married At First Sight, better known as MAFS, is back for its 11th season and the fans are here for it. Nearly 2.5 million Australian viewers watched the debut episode of the new season, which starts on Three tonight.

MAFS is a classic of the social experiment reality TV genre: 20 singletons are matched together under the watchful eye of relationship experts in the hope of finding lasting love. It's actually not that strange a concept in many countries where arranged marriage is the norm, but the couples are paired more for TV drama potential than compatibility and extra challenges are thrown in to stir things up even further.

Predictably the result is viewing gold. MAFS quickly spins a web of drama, shock and betrayal that hooks people fast. Say what you like, but this show has been pulling huge audiences for 10 solid seasons. Even if you don't watch it, you'll know someone who does. How has this show become such mandatory viewing for so many people, not only in New Zealand but all over the world?

Vicki Petley from Auckland is a firm fan. And she knows this genre well - it's far from the only reality TV she watches.

"My husband says he always wondered what kind of people actually watch these shows, and then he married one," she says.

Petley says MAFS is popular because people "love a train wreck".

"The formula is done so well to hook us all in and get addicted and we love the shock value of how people can actually behave."

Well-known chef and culinary writer Martin Bosley is also a MAFS disciple.

Chef Martin Bosley

Martin Bosley: "No one wants to admit watching it." Photo: Supplied / Martin Bosley

"No one wants to admit to watching it - it's like a dirty secret. I watched one out of curiosity three years ago and couldn't stop. I remember thinking 'Who are these people? And are they crazy?' But I couldn't tear myself away and now my friends know not to even think about calling me when it's on - unless it's in the ad break to discuss what happened."

Bosley thinks the show's success might be to do with the unpredictability.

"You start off watching this amazing wedding with the beautiful dress and everything - and you see a couple you think are going to go all the way, and then three or four episodes in one of them turns really nasty. There's always tears and drama - honestly, my heart races and my blood pressure goes up - I'm that absorbed and engaged."

Dr Rebecca Trelease, Te Āti Haunui a Pāpārangi, a senior lecturer in the critical media studies department at AUT, says there are lots of reasons why MAFS is so addictive.

"There are studies that explore the reasons why we watch reality shows - like would we actually want to live our own lives as dramatic as MAFS can be? For some people it can come down to having white noise on in the background or being able to join the conversation at work next the day - or even because someone else in the room is watching it and you want to spend time with them."

MAFS Australia 2024 contestant Andrea, 51

MAFS Australia 2024 contestant Andrea, 51. Photo: Channel Nine

But for those New Zealanders not just watching to be in on the water cooler conversation or to find common ground with their significant other, there are other, simpler reasons.

"Love and connection is one of our basic needs as humans," Trelease says.

"So a reality romance show is similar to why we'd watch a romantic movie - to experience or live vicariously through the characters. We'll laugh, we'll cry, and watching love succeed will make us feel good."

The authenticity displayed by real-life characters and relationships in reality TV shows also make viewers more engaged, Trelease says.

"We may not connect if we think they are playing it up for TV but when we see those moments where their hands are shaking from nerves, or their voice cracks a little during an argument, or they look genuinely hurt at an insult, the 'live' element heightens that relatability."

Could MAFS even have an educational element? Trelease says it does - and Auckland dad Dan Phillips agrees.

"Weirdly, we watch it with our children and use it to demonstrate what bad relationship behaviour looks like," Phillips says.

"We have discussions during and after the show about being gaslit, manipulated, controlled, disrespected and all those kinds of things, Actually seeing it happen in 'reality' is a really good forum for us to start those conversations. Similarly, it's a great way to show the kids how doing stupid things like being on reality TV just so you can grow your Instagram following is probably not a great idea."

MAFS Australia 2024 contestant Collins, 28

MAFS Australia 2024 contestant Collins, 28. Photo: Channel Nine

Trelease says the more dramatic and scandalous a show is, then the discussions that happen around the show define the boundaries and expectations of social norms.

"A lot of the talk within the show - and by audiences - is whether someone crossed the line or not, which then means we're all negotiating and deciding how we should all be behaving in our society."

MAFS as a moral compass? Stranger things have happened. Whether you think there's any educational benefit or not, it's hard to deny that a lot of the show's success comes down to a winning formula. Shows don't run for 10 seasons if no one is watching them. A New Zealand version of the show will screen later this year.

"The obvious production manipulation to create hero and villain characters makes it very watchable - it's closer to day-time drama than reality," Phillips says.

"This purposeful drive to make us hate the villains and empathise with their victims - until the inevitable twist - draws you in more effectively than any scripted drama I've seen in a long time.

"Get a whole bunch of narcissists together - with a sprinkle of people who are genuinely looking for love - match them with people who are most likely wrong for them and make them do a whole bunch of things that make them feel really uncomfortable. It makes for great watching."

* Alexia Santamaria is an Auckland journalist.