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Unholy Matrimony

'Married by America' fails on many levels.

by Mark D. Johnson
March 7, 2003

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Unholy Matrimony_Mark D. Johnson-'Married by America' fails on many levels. Hoping to ride the phenomenal ratings wave of “Joe Millionaire,” Fox this week unveiled Joe’s heavily-promoted time slot successor, “Married by America,” a match-making show that will take two out of five competing couples to the altar. With the fame of “Millionaire” couple Evan and Zora fading remarkably fast, most viewers thankfully wised up and watched something other than “Married” during Monday’s two-hour debut and Wednesday’s hour. Did television audiences find the idea too tasteless or were they simply tired of Fox’s reality show pattern of excessive hype and padding? The reasons aren’t clear yet, but it is good news for the state of television that “Married by America” is not a hit. “More outrageous” does not always result in higher ratings.

Once again, as your personal television watchdog, I watched the Monday premiere so you wouldn’t have to. On a dimly-lit set seemingly recycled from “Weakest Link”, a rowdy studio audience whooped it up as we were introduced to five singles (two men, three women) willing to marry someone they won’t see until their engagement. Each single gets five suitors, who are whittled down to two by a small panel of friends and family. Viewers then get to pick the bride and groom. Next Monday, the grooms propose, and the brides accept. The couples then meet, and then live together for a month to get acquainted. On April 14th, the couples will go before the altar and either say “I do” or “No, thanks.” It’s possible that no one will get married at all. It’s sort of an extreme “Blind Date” that in the end will likely rob everyone on both sides of the screen a fair amount of dignity.

Not surprisingly, pro-family groups are denouncing the show as a kind of crime against the institution of marriage. Who in their right mind can argue? Well, the show’s producer, Ted Haimes, for one, who considers the show a valid “social experiment.” The experiment can apparently be summed up in the question asked in the promos: “Can arranged marriages work?” By applying this question to this show, Fox even manages to offend cultures that take arranged marriages seriously. No matter how you look at this series, marriage is cheapened. How many times do we have to point to that infamous social experiment called “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” Mr. Haimes has a background in documentary film-making, but in this case, the experiment’s hypothetical question is this: will setting up perfect strangers for marriage attract lots and lots of viewers? Early indicators point to “no.”

Moral considerations aside, the show’s debut was just plain poor entertainment, plagued with cheap production values and stammering contestants. We’re clueless as to why these five have been selected to be guaranteed fiancés or fiancées while the rest must be suitors who can be rejected, and we don’t know how the suitors were selected to be in the groups they’re in. The panels asked mostly silly questions designed to entertain, and quickly eliminated two of the five for largely trivial reasons (one guy was wearing the wrong shirt). In an awkward moment of unfairness, the host (and I can’t even recall what he looks like), pointlessly announces that he has an envelop that reveals something embarrassing about one person in each group. He gives all suitors a chance to fess up (no one does), and then reveals the secret (one of the girls posed for Playboy, one of the guys didn’t have his first kiss until college). The panels grill the final three some more backstage, then eliminate one more, putting the final decision in “America’s” hands.

As with “Multi-Millionaire” and several other reality shows, the staff of “Married” failed to do an adequate background check: one of the female suitors is already married (albeit separated). It is possible, I guess, that TV viewers at large might make better choices for people than the contestants would make for themselves, but it’s an experiment that I think is better left unperformed.

Unfortunately, the show has potential to pick up viewers as it becomes more voyeuristic, leading up to the wedding day. But don’t give in to the hype. We all know how it will turn out in the end, don't we?

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