Skeptical at First Sight

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Humanists pride themselves on their rational compassion—the ethical stance dictating that, in lieu of any evidence for a deity who created and cares about us, we must care for each other and face reality head-on. So, wouldn’t humanists naturally gravitate toward reality TV shows? What about a reality show that promises to engage in a serious social experiment and bring people together? Get real, I hear you saying, because along with a rational compassion, humanists are also characterized by their natural skepticism. And most of us know full well there’s a whole lot of artifice that goes into creating the illusion of reality in a reality TV show. So why on earth would a humanist watch one? Why in anyone’s name did I watch the first episode of Married at First Sight?

The primary answer is because I’m interested in humanists and their image in the larger culture. The show, which premiered on the FYI network on July 8, features a humanist cast member (more on him later) and I was curious to see if humanism would be discussed or fairly represented. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)

Married at First Sight, based on a hit Danish show of the same name, conducted a national search for singles looking for love and commitment. Thousands answered the call. However, when they were told that three couples would be selected to get married before ever seeing or knowing anything about their spouse, most dropped out. The producers were left with fifty “brave singles” and over 625 possible combinations to choose from.

If anything, matchmaking and arranged marriages are antiquated practices (although unfortunately forced marriages are still common in some cultures). However, the show markets itself as a novel social experiment because the four expert matchmakers used lengthy questionnaires and in-depth interviews to select compatible couples. Words like “science,” “scientific methods,” and “sophisticated instruments” were used throughout the show’s first episode to lend it credibility, but one has to wonder about how a social experiment controls for the influence of camera crews and an environment where every action and reaction are filmed and carefully edited for maximum entertainment value.

The team of expert matchmakers includes clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, sociologist Pepper Schwartz, sexologist Logan Levkoff, and spiritual advisor Greg Epstein, who is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and the author of the New York Times bestseller Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. Epstein didn’t get as much air-time in the first episode as I’d hoped for and his humanist background was only mentioned in passing, but I think his inclusion to assess participants’ ethical and religious values is important.

“Through dating, people choose each other for the wrong reasons all the time. What we’re trying to do is bring them together for the right reasons,” Epstein explains in the series premiere. I agree with his point that what’s important about marriage isn’t just attraction but the work that each partner does to sustain the union. I’m dubious, however, about his statement that “arranged marriages work.” (Though, again, one always has to wonder with reality TV whether nuance or context simply fall to the editing room floor.)

When it came to assessing the couples’ spiritual compatibility the show glossed over fundamental beliefs and avoided any culture war topics. Two of the participants, who ended up being coupled together, expressed ambivalence to organized religion even though they went to church as kids. No questions about whether they wanted children themselves were asked on-air. This is an important issue that people who meet on their own don’t always discuss in depth before marriage but that most married people would agree is extremely important. Instead, one couple was paired up in part because he, an EMT moonlighting as a professional wrestler, dressed up in a tight spandex outfit, and she, as a nurse moonlighting as a burlesque dancer, also showed the sociologist her dress-up stuff.

The experts put great emphasis on their experiment and how its success hinges on their ability to match the right individuals, but most people know that a marriage goes through ebbs and flows and that married couples face various challenges over the span of years. Are the experts and the show’s producers really committed to the “experiment” to the extent that they’ll follow the couples through all of those years? Of course, that’s unrealistic. The show will follow couples for a month, after which each has to decide whether or not they’ll stay together.

The first episode essentially boils down to whether each contestant will find his or her new mate physically attractive. The viewer already has a pretty good idea—two of the couples seem very evenly matched in terms of looks, whereas the third couple isn’t. She’s simply better looking than he is, and it’s cringe-inducing watching her first lay eyes on him and then struggle to look at him again during the ceremony. He’s trying to catch her eye, trying so hard to engage her and be open to the marriage (he even says in voice-over how excited he was at her beauty). The whole thing is tough to watch and made me angry at the experts for humiliating this groom.

Incidentally, Dr. Levkoff claimed in an International Business Times article that the matches were decided wholly by the experts, not the producers. But, come on, the producers know that folks who enjoy watching reality shows love a train wreck. There’s poor Doug, the tall, affable groom with the close-knit family who also happens to have thinning hair and large moles dotting one side of his face. As the episode ends we hear his new wife expressing her dismay and anger at the experts who, she says, “really let her down.” Who knows, maybe she’ll grow to love him in the virtual reality of Married at First Sight. But that’s a whole other experiment (as would be pairing gay, middle-aged, or biracial couples, of which there were none).

People participate in and view reality TV shows for myriad reasons. My own curiosity about this one has been satisfied, and, given my impatience with commercials and dragged-out drama, I don’t think I’ll be saying “I do” again.