3 Oct 2017

Can Married at First Sight break New Zealand's reality TV curse?

10:53 am on 3 October 2017

Marrying a total stranger on the telly: what could go wrong?


The premise is simple. What if the only thing you need in common with someone is an irrational, mutual desire to stop being single?

Welcome to Married at First Sight, your new Sunday and Monday (!) television entertainment!

Asking this question are AUT senior psychology lecturer Dr Pani Farvid and counsellor Toby Jones who, as the experts, are given the fun and sociologically rewarding task of creating love. It’s their role (and certainly not a bevy of cynical producers) to amass a sufficient pool of these commitment-oriented folk, and match them up according to what is clearly a very detailed and scientific analysis of their personalities.

Two couples wed per episode: So far we’ve seen baby boomers Claire and Dominic, slightly awkward Lacey and Luke, total sweethearts Angel and Brett and extremely awkward Vicky and Andrew, which leaves burly Haydn and ex-Bachelor contestant Bel and (sacré bleu) gay contestants Ben and Aaron.  

From here the couples will embark on their new little lives together, going on fabulous holidays, blending families, and dealing with the humdrum horrors of everyday life (one particularly exciting teaser forewarned of a scene in a bathroom in which the dreaded words “someone hasn’t flushed” were shrieked, so we know we have something to look forward to).

It’s another curious acquisition in a recent and long line of reality show franchises to be imported to our shores by MediaWorks. Known now for the turbulent execution of such edifying content as X Factor, The Bachelor, Come Dine With Me and The Real Housewives of Auckland, the network’s determination knows no bounds - and with TVNZ announcing their plans for Kiwi versions of Project Runway and Love Island rip-off Heartbreak Island, the reality racket may only just be getting started.

Married at First Sight no doubt seems like a goldmine, and admittedly there is already an element of perverse fascination in finding out which, if any, of these couples will be able to survive the terrible choice they have made.

Unlike a show like The Bachelor though - which itself has already reached darker places of late - Married at First Sight carries with it higher stakes and thus higher potential for one of the New Zealand's now classic reality slip-ups which have included X-Factor’s convicted killer, the Real Housewives racial slur, and Jordan Mauger’s existence amongst many others.

In its US incarnation, the show has already hit significant snags, most notably with an incident in which one bride took out a restraining order against her groom after he allegedly abused drugs, behaved controllingly and then eventually threatened to kill her.

Already mildly controversial (though not nearly enough to stop anyone from watching) for Married at First Sight NZ, of course, is the lack of ethnic diversity in the cast, all of whom are very, very white.

It’s hard to imagine that diversity would really go far to improve such morally dubious premise. It is interesting to note, however, that the contestants that were chosen more or less all embody a quality that proves endlessly endearing to New Zealand audiences: awkward, colloquial, unselfconscious (white) Kiwiness.

Whether it be Luke the Raglan surfer guy, Dominic the retired-cop, Kate the pole-dancing Palmerston North divorcee, or Andrew who has a small pig running through the house at all times, these are the kinds of people you see in cheese and beer adverts, the kind of people who apparently represent the real New Zealand and the kind of people who, you will find, Aucklanders consider very amusing.

To say there is an element of naïveté at play here would be an understatement, and to be honest, it's hard to imagine what kind of ‘experts’ would recommend anyone, let alone these innocent souls, do this at all. Yet their good-natured Kiwiness has clearly been positioned at the centre of the show, and in every quaint mixed metaphor they deliver, you can bet there will be a flurry of condescending hashtagged tweets admiring the show’s ‘only-in-New-Zealand’ charm.

And yet, as we all know, nothing reveals the worst in people like relationships. As the couples embark on their honeymoons and subsequent eternities with one another then, we too will be privy to these gradual unveilings of the self. We can but hope all that sweet Kiwi awkwardness doesn’t give way to something more sinister.

As Angel wisely says: “We’re only on one layer of the onion. Plenty more to go!”