By JON CARAMANICA MARCH 20, 2015
Love is a feeling, to be sure, but love is also a choice — the choice to let someone in, and to get inside someone else.
In January, the writer Mandy Len Catron published a personal essay in The New York Times telling her story of falling in love. It was a variation on an old psychological experiment in which two strangers ask each other a series of 36 increasingly personal questions. For Ms. Catron, it worked — the trust generated by the pure stream of honesty demanded by the exercise opened the door to love.
Romantic, right? That was the popular perception, at least. But is it any more valid an approach than the one on “Married at First Sight,” the show about marriages arranged by a panel of experts?
“Married at First Sight,” which began its second season on FYI on Tuesday, is one of several recent reality shows about finding love or protecting it under extreme circumstances. (Undoubtedly, there must be a 36-questions show in development by now.) Next week, A&E will introduce two new programs — “Surviving Marriage” and “Neighbors With Benefits” — about relationships at risk. All of these shows, in different ways, present relationships and their rules as things that can be analyzed, assessed and, ultimately, televised.
In the first season of “Married at First Sight” last year, three couples were paired together;? two are still married. (The third filed for divorce.) There are three couples this year, too, and like last season, one of them has a chemistry problem from the beginning — Jaclyn doesn’t find Ryan attractive, which also happened with Jamie and Doug last year. But Doug had puppy-dog diligence, and Jamie succumbed to his charms. They recently had a second wedding, presumably to make up for the awkwardness of the first — the special about it will be shown on FYI on Tuesday.
“Married at First Sight” is an elaborate, fascinating, highest-stakes game show that proposes that being open to love is as important or more so than the recipient of that love. It also suggests that other people — maybe even strangers — might be able to save you from your own bad instincts. (Fear not, old-school family purists: Next month, FYI will debut “Arranged,” a docuseries about couples in family-arranged marriages.)
It’s too early in the season to know whether this round of couples will ultimately accept each other. One change from last year, though, is that so far the panel of experts — a clinical psychologist, a sociologist, a sexologist, a chaplain — is barely heard from, a serious mistake. Last year they explained their decision-making process at length. This year they’re guiding things from the shadows.
If “Married at First Sight” aims to depict what good can come from following instructions, “Surviving Marriage” and “Neighbors With Benefits” show what happens when couples lose sight of the rules and structures that have kept them intact.
The other part of love that’s a choice is the choice to keep working at it, and that’s at the core of “Surviving Marriage,” which has its premiere Tuesday on A&E. In each episode, a struggling couple is abandoned on an island for several days and put through a series of hilariously symbolic exercises — carrying bags full of rocks that represent “emotional baggage,” and so on. The first couple is Cleburn, steroidal and sour, and April, timid and resentful. Both have been unfaithful. The show clearly favors April, letting her tie Cleburn to a tree at one point as a way of allowing her the freedom to make her own decisions (and also allowing her to tie Cleburn to a tree).
“Surviving Marriage” has a spiritual cousin in A&E’s “Love Prison,” which took couples who only knew each other online and exiled them to an island to see if they were truly compatible, and also in “Sex Box,” the British show whose Americanized version recently began on WEtv, though on that show, the island is a literal box and the shared exercise is sex.
Perhaps an exhibitionist streak shouldn’t be undervalued in matters of the heart, and accordingly, maybe the impulse to be filmed during your romantic travails might indicate a tendency toward honesty: If you are willing to be transparent with your partner, maybe it is not such a big deal to also be transparent with the world.
“Neighbors With Benefits,” the excellently titled reality drama that begins Sunday on A&E, revolves around the members of a swinger community in Ohio. The show strenuously insists that participation in “the lifestyle,” as it’s enigmatically called, is predicated on following sets of rules.
The disruption in the premiere comes when Brittany, who is married to Cody, sends private, provocative texts to Mike, who is married to Maria. This is a violation of protocol, and it earns rebukes from Tony, the paterfamilias of the community, who doesn’t want his free-love fief upended.
“Neighbors With Benefits” is premised on the presumed illicitness of swinging but mostly dwells on the negotiations that all of this freedom requires. What these couples do more than anything is talk, and Brittany’s out- of-bounds actions leave Cody feeling left out and disrespected. Like the couples of “Married at First Sight” and the 36-questions experiment, all he wants is a little transparency.