REALITY TV: A phenomenon whose lure I had resisted until late last year when, in my search for shows to write about for the TV guide, I came across Wife Swap USA. In fact, I was already curious about it – a show dumped in the summer non-ratings period because of its limited and unglamorous appeal. Reviewers called the participants ‘idiots’. They all used that word, their tone so ferocious and exasperated that I imagined they had wanted to smash the television. Despite the reaction, the premise ofWife Swap USA intrigued me. The producers take two families with opposing views on all things, swap the wives, and pass on to viewers edited highlights of the ensuing chaos. The first episode I watched was fun, but it was the second that really got to me. When asked about her reason for going on the show, one of the wives said, ‘I want my family to know there are people out there worse than me’. I was hooked.
The families live under new management for two weeks. In the first week, each wife has to do things the way her counterpart does them. She has provided the other with an operating manual which includes information on how the household is run, but also the wife’s philosophy – for example, ‘I believe a wife serves her husband; he is the head of the household; his opinions are her opinions’. In the second week, the wife gets to impose her own idea of domestic congeniality.
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