Consult any ‘how to survive lockdown’ guide and, writing some form of gratitude diary, is often cited as a top tip. That said, I’d like to thank whichever Australian TV Exec decided to make, not eight episodes of Married at First Sight Australia, or twenty-four… but forty. That’s 40 X 90 minutes of Antipodean programming, stripped across the E4 weekday schedule at a time when staying in isn’t the new going out, it’s the new ‘you have no ‘bladdy’ choice’.
It’s been a ratings smash. Based on a Danish format which first aired in 2013, the franchise has become an international hit, airing in twenty-nine countries. The UK version has aired on Channel 4 since 2015 but the Aussie show, for various reasons, is so much better. Plus, it’s on when we don’t have anywhere to go, so watching something which requires a similar level of commitment to actually getting married, is manageable.
‘I’m just watching it for the panoramic views of Australia,’ said one man I know, in a bid to not seem cerebrally challenged. I didn’t pick him up on this outright lie because the stunning, sun- soaked landscapes are beautifully escapist and do enhance the experience, but actually, so do the cultural differences between us and the Aussies. Cliches are cliches for a reason, so when Mick, a farmer from the outback, says things like ‘heavens to Betsy’ and ‘pig’s arse,’ it’s bound to be amusing. Mick turns up to social occasions dressed in work boots and creased shorts and doesn’t care. Fair dinkum I suppose. I mean, we’ve all had moments when we’ve popped to the newsagents, hung-over, boobs swinging about under our pyjamas because we can’t be arsed to put a bra on, coat over the top, weird ‘they were by the door’ footwear on, looking furtively about, praying we don’t bump into any exes…. I think? Back me up people…
Mick, however, would happily turn up at the opera in this sort of garb and not give a hoot. But then Mick is also astute, decent, dry and highly unlikely to find a mate where he lives. I’d imagine his Tinder settings would have to be set pretty widely to find something living nearby which wasn’t a sheep. And he’s only one character from a cast of very diverse, interesting sorts which has made for compulsive lockdown viewing.
In fact, knowing how much our ‘dear’ leader craves popularity and enjoys making optimistic, ultimately deadly pronouncements, resulting in contagious congas on VE day and macabre front-page headlines such as BORIS BATTLES EXPERTS TO SAVE CHRISTMAS I’m amazed Mr Johnson hasn’t stood at the podium saying, ‘Right, listen up folks, we’re aiming to give you more freedom once this series of MAFS is all tied up, at which point there’ll be a gaping hole in the weekday schedules for many of you. So, no matter what the scientists say, when the last episode has aired, we’ll let you sit on a bench legally, so you can gaze into the distance and question your life choices.’
In the beginning, I only had one friend to gossip about MAFS with on WhatsApp, but now it feels like much of my circle, including those who wouldn’t normally go near reality TV with their more highbrow barge poles, are on board. They’ve either succumbed, acquiesced, been roped into, given up, or possibly just completed Netflix, who knows? Either way, E4 must be feeling pretty smug.
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the format of the ‘experiment,’ is outlandish as it is simple. Participants are paired with complete strangers based on compatibility criteria that the show’s trio of relationship ‘experts’ – relationship specialists John Aiken and Mel Schilling and clinical neuropsychotherapist, Dr Trisha Stratford – claim is highly scientific, but comes across on screen as quite arbitrary.
‘OK, she’s been very hurt in the past and he’s very patient. They both like swimming, and cheese. Let’s do it!’
Or – and this is an actual scenario which happened but subsequently failed – He’s a twenty-nine-year-old virgin who’s so unsure of everything, he’s reminiscent of Clark Kent landing on Earth, clueless about society and utterly unsullied, possessing the sort of wide-eyed innocence which gives the impression that up until now he’s been living in a tree. She likes an adventurous sex life, is questioning her sexuality and is kind. It’s a match!
Then, it’s off to a beautiful Aussie location for a wedding (although unlike in other international editions of MAFS, the ceremony isn’t actually legally binding), where the couple meet each other and their families – for the first time.
It’s as intense as that sounds. An alternate title for this show could easily be ‘What the hell are you doing? Are you out of your mind?’ Yet their nerve-wracking trauma is our viewing manna and can be, at times, incredibly touching. Credit to the experts, some of the couple’s clap eyes on each other, in a situation which is less pressure cooker, more vacuum of such adrenaline fuelled stress I think personally I’d collapse, and their faces light up. Shaking with acute nerves, grinning hysterically, they look delighted with their matches, relieved, optimistic. You’d have to be pretty hard of heart not to be touched at the capacity humans have for hope when it comes to finding love.
Then, the happy – or horrified – total strangers, are sent off on honeymoon, to work out why they’ve been matched and whether they’re ready to share a bed with someone they’ve only seen in a white dress before, or to sleep on the couch. The next few months are spent living with their partner as they decide whether they’re ‘the one’ or not, interspersed with dinner parties, home visits and reflection sessions on the couch with the experts. At this ceremony, if one person writes leave but the other opts to stay, they both stay, like some form of exquisite relationship torture.
Pantomime villains aside, it’s not all as hopeless or disastrous as you might imagine, but then arranged marriages have been happening in other cultures for centuries and can have incredibly successful outcomes. Perhaps the whole notion isn’t quite as cuckoo as it first seems?
Part of the show’s success is very zeitgeist. Dating apps are exhausting and involve a lot of filtering. It’s perfectly possible to meet someone great but equally it can be a soul- destroying, dull process to navigate. Perhaps there’s something to be said for putting your life into the hands of matchmakers? It’s natural to wonder who these ‘experts’ would pick out for you and fascinating, from an anthropological point of view, to watch people working one another out.
An ex once said to me, what’s the most important question you can ask someone you want to date. I pondered for a while before stating ‘Have you got a nice willy?’ Apparently, this was both wrong and immature. I tried again. ‘What are your core values?’ This attempt was deemed too corporate, too ‘Mayers Briggsy’. I insisted he revealed his transformational nugget (not his willy).
Turns out, the most telling thing you can ask a potential love interest is ‘how do you argue?’ I was disappointed by the negative nature of this revelation, but once I’d digested it, found myself agreeing. Getting on is one thing, but when the inevitable happens and you disagree or hit a patch, how you deal with it is so important. If one person is a sulker and the other a ‘I need to resolve all conflict before bed type’ can it work? Or, in the case of Nick from MAFS, if you’re a laid-back, thoughtful type but were matched with fiery, no emotional regulation, aggressively shouty Cyrell, was it always destined for failure? The pair were good together… when not fighting, but Cyrell had issues which frankly she needed professional help with. The experts and Nick, were slowly helping her understand this, until Cyrell’s brother, Ivan, pitched up. Or, as I like to call him, Ivan the terrible judge of character and last person anyone in their right mind should go to for counsel.
For some unknown reason, Cyrell trusted Ivan’s opinion, which was a shame because Ivan’s view was that his sister should be allowed to be as dysfunctional as she liked and that if Nick cared about her, rather than challenge her disturbing behaviours, he should be wading in and backing her up, like a proper, caring thug. Cyrell made the mistake of letting her lunatic brother have some alone time with Nick. They went to play basketball in the park at which point Ivan took it upon himself to tell Nick, in no uncertain times, that he wasn’t good enough for his sister, and that actually he was throwing him out.
Next thing we saw was Ivan arriving home, sheepish, and alone. Cyrell wanted to know where her husband was. He announced that he’d thrown him out. This in itself was misleading because Nick hadn’t been in when he’d been thrown out. So now, a despondent, insulted and understandably alarmed Nick, was left sitting on a grassy verge outside the house, wondering how to retrieve his luggage.
Despite really liking Nick, Cyrell left the experiment, managing to look both defiant and totally unsure. Nick also decided to leave. He probably didn’t fancy spending Christmas with Ivan the agony uncle, with the emphasis on agony who proved that blood is thicker than water. If thicker means more stupid.
One of my favourite quotes however was from Bronson, a stoic chap who was paired with the awful Ines. After yet another week of being treated dismally by someone who appeared to have zero empathy or compassion and was cheating on him, he said, ‘I didn’t come here for happiness, I came here for marriage.’ Maybe you have to be a bit long in the tooth and cynical to find that one funny. I roared.
I like to think MAFS makes us look inwards, to consider our own behaviours within relationships. Are we as mature and decent and respectful as Jules and Cam are to one another? They’re the love story of the series and have fallen hard and beautifully and *spoiler alert* are still together and raising a family.
Do we transfer trauma from previous experiences onto people who don’t deserve it? If this could be you, I’d implore you to take Mark and Ning as a case study and observe. Ning is a single mum of three and from the beginning, made it clear, that she was damaged by her past and had trust issues. She didn’t see herself as coming with ‘baggage’ (as a single mum myself I’ve always hated that word. My fabulous kids aren’t suitcases and don’t need to be carried by anyone else) but she does come with ‘walls.’ She refers to her ‘walls’ a lot. Like she’s actually lugging them around everywhere she goes. How her walls are ‘up’ is referred to every episode, to the point where I’d like to take a sledgehammer to them. Due to her ‘walls’ she shared a bed with patient Mark for months, but no matter what he had ‘up,’ she only permitted a bit of a snog and light feel of her left boob. If I was Mark, I think I’d have scaled her walls and run off into the night to find someone who made me feel fancied and didn’t tar me with the brush of their psycho ex when I hadn’t done anything wrong myself. But he’s probably nicer than me so has stuck it out. Only the ‘wall’s affliction seems to be catching because Ning has decided he’s welcome to come into her fortress, through the front door. Mark has put his walls up. What a pair of ‘Wallies.’
Martha and Michael are another success story. Martha is a beautiful Greek girl who admits she’s had a lot of facial surgery. I think she looks like Cher. My friend thinks she looks like Louise Thompson from Made in Chelsea (never watched it, wouldn’t know), my daughter thinks she’s very Kendall Jenner. I think this is the point. If you do that much to your face, you end up looking like everyone, except yourself.
Then there’s Jessika, and her lips, which are like a separate cast member. Jessika loves saying how she ‘came for love and for herself’ in a bid to excuse all terrible behaviours, including forcing husband, farmer Mick, to stay in the process week after week so she could ‘get to know’ someone else’s husband. Like all the other contestants, Dan, the object of her desire, is covered in tattoos. They all have them, to the point where if they were ever stuck for small talk at one of the group parties, they could just sit and read each other instead. Jessika described Dan to her friend and confidante, Martha, as a meal not a snack. To be fair he’s so thickset I’d say he’s more of a buffet.
And yet, we’re nearly there. The end of the series and all this easy to digest entertainment and scandal is looming on the horizon, which is horrifying in one way because it feels like I’ve been watching it forever so the fact lockdown is going to outlive it is fairly depressing. But in another, it’s for the best. I’m not sure I can justify spending anymore of my time here on Earth watching other people’s love lives.
My sister must feel the same because she sent me a text last night saying ‘Just watched episode 32 of Married At First Sight’ I literally can’t wait for it to finish now….’
Yes, it’s probably time for us all to do something else………but it has filled a bit (a lot) of lockdown and for that I’m ‘bladdy’ grateful!