Editorial: Detritus, thy name is Australian ‘reality’ television

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Is joy the aim of slew of reality TV shows that toy with their participants? PHOTO: Shutterstock

The name really says it all. How could anything as profound as marriage – the greatest adventure possible in this life – possibly succeed on the basis of nothing more than a programming idea cooked up by some commercial television station executives and their marketing departments hunting round for something – anything, really – to capture ratings for another season? Imagine the setting: ‘So Jack, what’ve your guys come up with? We’ve gotta get numbers up, otherwise we’re all out of our jobs.’

Response: ‘Dude! Don’t sweat it! I think we got a winner. Imagine several couples. They’ve never met – until they’re standing in front of a celebrant! We film the whole thing before, during and after – then come back in a fortnight to see how they’re getting on. The average Joe’ll love it.’ That pretty much sums it up. If you don’t believe marriage is profound, then it can’t possibly succeed.

Part of the reason, perhaps, lies in the juxtaposition of opposites around this latest television phenomenon. Aristotle somewhere once described the juxtaposition of opposites as the essence of humour. And it’s true. A tall fat lady next to a thin little man or the other way round. For some reason we find these kinds of images amusing.

And there is, of course, a kind of locked-ward humour about Married at First Sight, Seven Year Switch and all the other similar offerings on television which revolve around sex, relationships and marriage which are, essentially, what once would have been called in Australia perv shows – shows, that is, which offer viewers the opportunity to ‘perv’ at other people’s most private lives.

On the one hand there is the profound nature of this unique bond freely entered into between a man and a woman which each senses is part of a story that is, somehow, mysteriously greater than themselves. The ending of this story, every person who ever participates in it also believes, essentially provides a large part of the answer to the meaning of their own life. Traditionally, societies everywhere have treated this unique bond with the greatest gravity, recognising as they do that there is something deeply important, fundamental to its reality.

Juxtaposed with this is the shabbiness, the cheap, low and “bling-like” attempts by nothing better than corporate business to make public (and highly profitable) entertainment out of people’s real lives and the complexities of emotions generated by the circumstances; like scientists throwing rats into an obstacle course for no other reason than to find a reason to prolong their funding grant. The whole thing is a complete inversion.

Of course, some shows go beyond the cheap and coarse and dive into what can only be described as television’s sewers. Seven Year Switch is one. There, participants with existing marriage problems are separated and put into new relationships with supposedly like-minded partners. Some guests are fooled into taking part, as Michelle Guest recently revealed to online magazine MammaMia. She told the magazine she had been reassured by Seven producers that the program would not be a reality-tv series and that she had signed up to the show under the impression she and her partner would be staying together for its duration. The name of the show she signed up for was different as well: Relationship Rescue.

The polite word for what Channel Seven is doing with and to marriage is, of course, baloney. The Australian vernacular expression would be much more direct. Seven is fooling with other people’s lives and futures for its own corporate ends and, not as far as anyone can tell, with any real concern for those whose lives it may wreck. Of course, a nation that makes such programs into major ratings successes has already lost sight of what makes marriage unique. And when we destroy marriage’s definition, it’s only logical that anything – literally – can be marriage.