From dating competitions where the ideal outcome is a fairy-tale wedding to experimental series like Married at First Sight where couples agree to marry the first time they meet, reality shows love marriage — and doubly so when that marriage is in trouble. FYI’s newest series The Seven Year Switch is banking that viewers love it too.
Premiering tomorrow, The Seven Year Switch is easily comparable to reality show staples Wife Swap and Trading Spouses, but with a more serious tone and decidedly heightened stakes. Those two series operate under the assumption that we’ll find it humorous to see families of different classes (and wildly different household lifestyles: Look at this meticulously neat woman swap houses with a messy hoarder!) switch places and adapt (or not adapt) to their new surroundings. At the end, the spouses go back to their original home with a newfound appreciation for their house and family. It’s just a fun marital experiment.
The Seven Year Switch, however, is in the business of saving marriages — or, the show perhaps hopes, pushing a marriage toward its necessary end — and takes an even more serious approach than Marriage Boot Camp, which keeps all the couples together. Switch focuses on four married couples who have been together for a while (the title refers to the seven-year-itch period within marriages, a time when some tend to decline) but are experiencing problems. The show quickly boils down the spouses to their basic, opposite personality traits — the man-child and the overachiever, the playboy and the housewife, the workaholic and the artist, etc. — before further explaining some of the issues they’re dealing with. One woman is upset that her husband works too much and never spends any time with her; one husband lost his job and became depressed, and then lost interest in his wife due to her weight gain (they both had affairs, though only she fesses up to cheating, while he seems to believe his dalliance was justified).
In The Seven Year Switch, these four exhausted couples switch spouses to see if the grass is greener on the other side. The show’s “relationship experts” dictate the best pairings, mostly based on those aforementioned basic personality traits (two workaholics are put together), though later we’re told that a husband — dubbed “Mr. Traditional” — was paired with his new wife because she is “beautiful and accommodating.” (His real wife is nicknamed “Ms. Independent.”) Once the new couples are formed, they move into fancy houses where they will live together for two weeks and supposedly talk about their marriages, and learn whether they really want to marry someone with preferable personality traits, or just learn how to be better in the future. Or something like that. It’s really all up in the air.
The show keeps touting this experimental “switch therapy” as “radical,” with the experts spouting lots of therapeutic mumbo-jumbo (most of which boils down to: hey, listen to your partner!) and repeating that this experiment will totally change the subjects’ lives. At the end, the couples will decide whether they are headed for a divorce or if they want to renew their vows. But it’s hard to see how exactly they’re going to come to a decision one way or the other. The biggest obstacle these new couples face in the pilot episode is that the houses are set up so that there is only one bed — the show is “introducing an awkward moment” in order to see how everyone will deal with it — forcing them to decide if they are OK with sleeping next to someone else, or OK with the idea of their real spouses doing the same.
We don’t find out their solutions to the bed scenario just yet, which is one thing The Seven Year Switch does have going for it: It focuses on four couples for the entire season, rather than new ones each week, like Wife Swap. This way, we get to see the relationships slowly evolve and learn more about the couples, rather than getting everything boiled down to quick ten-minute acts. The issue there, though, is that it takes so long for anything of interest to happen; the first episode is a bloated two hours, and we only get to the new couples during the last 20 minutes.
The Seven Year Switch prides itself on being experimental, radical marriage counseling, but it’s definitely still a reality show. The teasers highlight the couples breaking down and crying, and bonding (maybe a bit too much) with their new spouses. It’s clear that much of what is being set up is pure temptation for the couples — it’s telling that one couple has already been unfaithful within their marriage — especially with the confessional interview segments featuring the participants describing their new spouses as “very attractive” or “more beautiful than expected,” which is “really great.” (The men don’t come off too great here; earlier in the episode, they worry about their new wives being “some crazy bitch” or not being as attractive as they hope.)
More than anything, The Seven Year Switch remarks on our continued interest in marriage-centric reality shows, and especially on ones that hint at the dissolution of a marriage. Reality programs tend to thrive on schadenfreude: the most interesting moments of The Bachelor/ette happen when someone has a spectacular elimination, while American Idol‘s terrible auditions are discussed more than the winners. In The Seven Year Switch, the couples will most likely stay together, but the show loves the idea that they won’t.