As drama, it works a treat. But as matchmaking it’s a farce: one successful pairing in five seasons attests to that.
None of which would matter were it not for the negative impact all this stereotyping and toying with people’s vulnerabilities has – not just on the participants, but on those of us who watch as well.
This week, we’ve had the extraordinary claim by one participant, Lauren Huntriss, that she had been bullied by producers into describing herself on-air as a lesbian, that she had been matched with a man who “suffer[s] mental health issues”, and that others on the show also had issues that the pre-show psychological screening had evidently not detected.
True or not, we can safely conclude that pathological narcissism is considered an asset, not a liability, in the casting department.
I’ve argued in the past that there is value in seeing our behaviour, good and bad, reflected back at us, that shows like MAFS offer us the opportunity to reflect and amend. But with the dynamics now reduced for the most part to conflict between ill-matched types, the “lessons” we’re able to take from the show are increasingly toxic – as some of the woman-hating comments attached to the petition to sack relationship expert Mel Schilling from the show attest.
Sure it’s been fun to see Ines cast as a sexually predatory villain, but in doing so MAFS has missed a great opportunity to engage with real human complexity. To show empathy.
“Ever since I was a young child, I just didn’t really have an interest in other people’s business,” Ines said at girls’ night this week, when accused (rightly) of cheating with Sam. “I just think you should mind your own business. Like, girl code doesn’t exist for me. I just focus on myself, and my impact on the world.”
It’s easy to cast that as the credo of a narcissistic home-wrecker, and it served the storyline to do so. But imagine if, instead of skipping right past her references to post-traumatic stress disorder, the producers had prodded the experts to unpack that a little, and explored the impact Ines’ childhood in war-torn Bosnia and her parents’ divorce might have had in shaping her world view.
Then we might have seen it not just as selfish, but also as a form of self-defence. We might have recognised some of her instincts in our own behaviour. And who knows, those “experts” might even have helped Ines to reflect and maybe even change, just a little.
There’s been great entertainment value too in the on-again off-again “marriage” of Sam and Elizabeth, but imagine if the producers had prodded the experts to expose Sam’s constant lying to his instawife.
How many of us have wished, in the middle of a marital dispute, we’d had a recording of what had been said? Well, these people actually have them.
Calling Sam on his deceptions, masked by the outrageous insistence that “I’ve been so honest, and trying for you, not for me”, would have allowed the experts to address the issue of gaslighting in relationships, to explore the damage it does, to show how it diminishes both parties. Instead, the arguments were allowed to remain in he said-she said mode, delivering conflict but no clarity, and certainly no opportunity for the sparring partners, or viewers, to learn.
I’m not suggesting Married at First Sight shouldn’t milk its contrived scenarios for maximum drama – of course it should. But I am suggesting it could do more. It’s the biggest show on TV right now; isn’t it time it used its power for good rather than evil?
MAFS could so easily put its relationship experts to proper work on air rather than just use them to make fluffy generic observations. There, they could explore the reasons for the participants’ behaviour, explain how those behaviours sabotage their relationships, and suggest how the participants might affect some meaningful change in those behaviours so that they – and those of us watching at home – might actually gain some useful knowledge from the whole tawdry mess.
Call me old-fashioned, call me a crazy romantic fool, but I truly believe there’s scope to make television that is both entertaining and educational.
As it stands, MAFS is just voyeurism. But tweak it a little and this “social experiment” might actually have some genuine social value.
Follow the author on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin
Karl is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.