This article contains spoilers for the sixth series of Married at First Sight Australia
Each lockdown cycle has been dominated by a breakout reality show. Selling Sunset got us through the worst of it, Bling Empire had its moment, and now Married at First Sight Australia is having its time in the sun.
For five years, I have watched in real time as the series has gone from a filler show you watch in between seasons of something else to a global sensation. Of late, it has developed a cult following in the UK on E4, where more than 1.5 million viewers tuned in at its peak. So successful has it been that the more chaste UK edition on Channel 4 is apparently planning to take notes from the raunchier Aussie version, rebranding as a sexed-up, aged-down challenger to ITV2’s Love Island.
This revamp should be fantastic news for lovers of reality TV, Love Island and drama, such as myself. But the last thing that Married at First Sight UK needs to do is go the same direction as the Australian version, which appears to be losing its way in pursuit of ratings. All good reality shows are at least partly frustrating to watch, but despite being an avid fan of seasons one to five, I struggled to complete series six out of pure exasperation. The explosive reunion episodes nearly made up for the slog of the second half of the series, but I’m not sure even a contestant getting wine thrown over their head was enough to make it all worth it.
The Married at First Sight universe spans 14 territories, among them Israel, Serbia and France. Married at First Sight Australia has always been the most dramatic: in the UK, a maximum of three or four couples tie the knot, while Australia casts 10. Here, the couples live together in their pairs, usually with no interaction with the other couples until the very end, if at all. In Australia, all the couples share luxurious Sydney living quarters, akin to the infamous Love Island villa. Although they have separate rooms, they often end up in each other’s beds. There are also weekly dinner parties that descend into pure chaos, as well as commitment ceremonies in which they air their dirty laundry to us and each other. Perhaps the biggest difference between the franchises is that the marriages in Australia are not legally binding: in order to comply with the Australian Marriage Act, which requires one month and one day’s notification, real marriages never take place, which means real liberties can be taken.
One of the USPs of the Married at First Sight franchise is that, compared with other lower-stakes dating shows, it is rarely in doubt that contestants are looking for love. The only thing sillier than getting married on television, is doing so for the sake of a few thousand Instagram followers. But that all must have changed when it occurred to producers that the marriages were no more real than the ones taking place across primary school playgrounds, and the show went from Married at First Sight to Wife Swap. The show’s history can be looked at in terms of “BDD” and “ADD”: that is, before the 2018 “affair” between series five contestants Davina and Dean, and after. When they decided to hook up without their partners knowing, the two were pilloried for “cheating”, not just by the public but by the show’s panel of “experts” who claim to painstakingly create the pairings. Their decision was seen as an affront to the sanctity of the experiment. But this year the show’s makers have had a change of heart (or rather, a look at the booming viewing figures of the last series), with two instances of spouse swapping allowed.
While fighting off love rivals is the whole point of Love Island, Married at First Sight is – or at least is supposed to be – entirely different. Now the show wants to have its cake and eat it: for viewers to buy into the fantasy that participants are taking these unions seriously, while the producers do everything in their power to show they are not. It is increasingly hard to be scandalised by behaviour that the experts either turn a blind eye to or encourage outright. There isn’t even an attempt to convince us that we are watching anything remotely connected to reality, as some participants have since confirmed.
Ethical arguments aside, it just doesn’t make for enjoyable viewing. The last few episodes of the show were a deeply unsatisfying merry go round of the same arguments and fallouts; perpetrators dodging accountability while the show’s moral arbiters stroked their chins and let it all unfold. While dinner party slanging matches and swapping spit with another housemate’s husband is undoubtedly entertaining, the race to the bottom in hope of a ratings grab had me feeling like I was watching a telenovela – and not in a good way. Loose ends were left untied – even when Jess and Dan got their comeuppance in the last episode it wasn’t entirely satisfying, since her partner in crime Martha – who had been aiding and abetting her the whole way – got off scot-free.
Such engineered dramas have taken away much of the show’s charm, and shown me that, despite my love of messiness, you can indeed have too much of a good thing. This is why I hope the comparatively tame, but equally fascinating, UK version stays true to itself instead of transforming into Married at First Sight Australia, which is trying to be Love Island Australia, which is already based on Love Island UK. Indeed, reality TV shows are becoming increasingly homogenous. I wrote an article last year praising the differences in international franchises, and Married at First sight Australia’s more buttoned-up UK cousin – a ratings hit for Channel 4 last year – is a great example. I’ll take the authenticity of the UK version over staged dinner parties any day. In short: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.