When newlywed couple Marilyse and Franky sat down with three psychologists to discuss their marriage just a few weeks after their wedding, Franky didn’t feel comfortable sharing. He had signed up to this, as had his wife, and knew these sessions were to talk about his feelings, but he felt uncomfortable. Marilyse felt differently. But when she moved to speak, Franky would cut her off.
One of the psychologists suggested his behaviour was controlling. Several of the 14 people sitting in on this session – watching and judging their relationship – quietly agreed, as did many of the million people watching live at home. Because this is not just couples therapy: this is the couples therapy featured on the reality series Married At First Sight.
The Married At First Sight franchise first began as a Danish programme in 2013 before it was subsequently sold to broadcasters in 13 other countries. Though different countries’ versions have slightly different structures, the premise of the title threads them together: two strangers, matched by “experts”, have a wedding without having previously met. (Despite the name, in many versions, including the UK’s, couples do not get legally married, but simply have a ceremony.) It is hard to overstate its success – during the UK winter lockdown, an old season of the Australian version (often referred to as “MAFSA”) aired on E4 five nights a week, presumably as filler, yet it peaked at 1.5 million viewers per episode, making it the channel’s most viewed programme ever. The American remake, which aired its 13th season this summer, is so popular that it has spawned eight different spin-off shows.
In the English-speaking world, the Australian version set the bar for how entertaining this show could be. It gained international acclaim for its glitzy, hyper-manufactured format: each series includes at least ten couples – mostly attractive, glamorous people in their twenties and early thirties, who all live in the same apartment block for nearly two months – meeting up weekly for wine-throwing dinner parties and group activities. Once a week, they attend a “commitment ceremony” where the experts (behavioural psychologists and “love gurus”) grill each couple in front of the others in a faux therapy session, discussing communication issues and whether or not they’re having sex. Then, each couple reveals whether they would like to continue with the process. In this version, it has become common for people to cheat on their partners with the other contestants.
Until this year, the UK version was a comparatively low-budget affair. Over just a handful of episodes, only a few couples – typically relatively normal people of varying ages – would get “married”. Beyond the wedding and honeymoon, they would largely be left to live their lives, with a documentary crew filming the awkwardness and logistics of ordinary next steps, such as moving in. After the success of the Australian version, however, the 2021 UK season has been made with a nearly identical, more structured format.
All of this is to say: Married At First Sight looks like yet another increasingly ridiculous reality show. However, the programme exists outside of the strict dichotomies that usually define reality TV – subtly allowing it to emerge as something genuinely unique.
A crucial element of the show’s appeal is that it wears its structure lightly, despite its absurd premise. Though it is explicitly artificial, it is also a format that is sincerely interested in “real” relationships, dissecting what makes a dynamic “successful”. Unlike shows it is often compared to – such as Love Island or Love Is Blind – the situation it inflicts on its contestants isn’t that unlike a marriage. They’re living together, socialising, and trying to figure out how to make their lives fit into one another’s. Between the excitement and drama of watching a relationship that is disastrously mismatched, viewers become sincerely invested in the better-suited couples negotiating cross-country moves and conflicting lifestyles. (The show has many success stories – and babies – that lend credibility to the idea that these marriages can actually work, if the couples can overcome these hurdles.)
The series makes other attempts at legitimacy. In the “commitment ceremonies”, real behavioural psychologists use therapy-speak that will sound genuine and authoritative to anyone who has ever been in counselling. The psychologists point out interpersonal issues and voice it when they have concerns for the welfare of the contestants. The producers of the UK version have also gained goodwill from the viewers by proving that if anyone acts aggressively or breaks the rules they will be forced to leave permanently (one contestant, Nikita, was removed immediately after an altercation; another, Jordon, left after admitting to cheating on his partner after their honeymoon).
Like many reality programmes aiming to add gravitas to entertainment television, participants do not call what they’re doing what it is – a TV show – but instead refer to the set-up as “the experiment”, as though this formula was concocted by scientists rather than producers. Viewers may roll their eyes whenever this phrase is used, but the familiarity of the couples’ relationship problems turns thousands of viewers into armchair psychologists, emotionally buying into manufactured marriages from their sofa.
But Married At First Sight, of course, is manufactured, and the Australian version shows the pitfalls of needing to up the stakes each year. In its 2019 season, which aired in the UK in early 2021, an increasing number of contestants were clearly using the show to grow their influencer profiles, and the season contained multiple “wife swaps” and melodramatic emotional betrayals.
Like almost any reality show, it’s inevitable that viewers will eventually tire of the new Married At First Sight format. But until then, its sheen of sincerity will likely carry it to higher and higher ratings. Other shows, with increasingly ridiculous premises, will premiere and die before the bubble bursts.