Channel 4 have just announced a new television series which they describe - in the hyperbole we’ve come to expect from them - as “a groundbreaking social experiment”.
The series is called Married at First Sight and it does pretty much what it says on the tin: it takes two strangers, gets them to marry, gives them six weeks to see if they can make it work and then asks them to decide whether they want to stay together or not.
So far, so voyeuristic. Except this being Channel 4, there needs to be some public service explanation.
Channel 4’s press release goes to some effort to explain (or, perhaps, convince us) of the show’s innovation:
Each of the single participants will be carefully matched by a panel of experts in the fields of psychology, psychotherapy, social & evolutionary anthropology and theology in the hope that their combined professional experience can create a ‘perfect’ match.
In other words, it’s a modern version - through contemporary socio-scientific disciplines - of what traditional marriage brokers claim to have been doing for centuries. The press release even begs the question:
Can the act of marriage itself help create a psychological bond that leads to true and enduring love?
The answer most of us would probably give to that question is: I don’t know, I don’t care and and I don’t want to find out. Since most of us now aspire to long-lasting, loving, happy relationships rather than marriage per se, it seems like an oddly anachronistic question to be asking.
In fact the whole idea and supposed motivation for the show sound strangely anachronistic for a broadcaster which still likes to position itself as cutting edge. In an effort to justify the commission, the channel cite the 2011 Census results showing that 15.7 million adults in the UK are single and that marriage is at an all-time low. They go on to ask the question:
Have marriage and monogamy had their day. Have we forgotten how to fall in love?
as though any of us still believe that marriage and monogamy are inextricably linked or, indeed, that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Why does Channel 4 feel the need to see young people married in the first place? It’s all sounding as though they’ve had David Cameron sitting in on their commissioning meetings, offering some thoughts on tax breaks.
Over the past few years there’ve been some brilliant shows about weddings. Don’t Tell the Bride - now on its seventh season - is undoubtedly the market leader, and has been a huge hit both for BBC 3 and for the show’s producers, Renegade Pictures, who’ve watched it transmit in over 120 territories. It’s a brilliant idea: give a groom £12k and three weeks to organise his wedding without any involvement at all from the bride: cue tears, tantrums and invariably a deliriously happy bride at the end, even when her hapless new husband has arranged the wedding she claimed at the outset would be her nightmare day.
Then there’s international hit Four Weddings, in which four brides attend one another’s big day, rating various aspects (dress, food, venue) to create an overall winner (of a honeymoon, of course).
What these two shows share is some basis in reality: who, after all, hasn’t been to someone else’s wedding and bitched about some aspect or another to their friends or partner, per Four Weddings? And which would-be-groom hasn’t managed to get something wrong in one of the few jobs they’ve been tasked to carry out in any ordinary wedding? The reason these shows work is because they’re exaggerated versions of a reality we’re all familiar with.
But marrying a total stranger isn’t something most of us are familiar with. It is, in fact, something a lot of us feel deeply uncomfortable about, not least when we read yet another newspaper story about a young woman escaping an arranged marriage, only to be ostracised - or worse - by her family as a result. Marrying a complete stranger isn’t innovative: it’s been going on for centuries, across multiple cultures, with varying degrees of success. I suspect the same will be true of the couples on TV.
Channel 4 are justifying the show as a social and scientific experiment: the press release ends with the question “Can science produce a successful relationship?” That question could be answered in any number of dating show formats, without the need for the couple to actually marry - Channel 4 could feasibly have incorporated it into their existing show, First Dates. But that, of course, wouldn’t have grabbed the headlines in the way that Married At First Sight has: and if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about Channel 4 in recent years, it’s that they’re very keen on a headline.
I’ve little doubt that Married at First Sight will be compulsive viewing and that it’ll draw the ratings Channel 4 is after, but then so were public hangings and no-one’s suggesting we bring those back (or have I inadvertently pre-empted Channel 4’s 2015 programme highlights?) After the unedifying debacle over Benefits Street, the disastrous Drugs Live and the public outcry over Big Fat Gypsy Wedding posters, it would be good to see Channel 4 grab the headlines for all the right reasons - award-winning programming, genuinely ground-breaking social experiments, innovative content - rather than tabloid approaches to getting bums on seats. Although I suppose at least Married At First Sight will provide some good content for Gogglebox.
Oh, and if anyone’s taking bets, I’ll put money on there being no lasting marriages to emerge from Married At First Sight. Not scientific, I grant you: call it an old-fashioned hunch.
This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post