Alex Casey chats to Married at First Sight Australia stalwart John Aiken about the evolution of the reality TV juggernaut.
John Aiken had been dragging his rubbish bin for collection down hundreds of metres of unsealed remote road near Queenstown. It was freezing cold and he was rugged up in a beanie and layers, the only person anywhere for miles. Against the jaw dropping backdrop of Coronet Peak and The Remarkables, he noticed a car slowly coming towards him. The vehicle stopped and the window rolled down slowly, one question piercing the solitude from the driver’s seat.
“Are you… the guy from MAFS?”
He was, indeed, the guy from MAFS. Since 2014, the relationship expert has been a mainstay in the Australian televised social experiment, in which complete strangers meet at the altar, get married, and then undergo a series of tests over 10 drama-filled weeks. Known for his blunt feedback, Aiken sums up his style with a series of cliches: “I come out of the blocks hard, I hold their feet to the fire, and I give them home truths,” he says.
It was over a decade ago now that he showed his wife the email about auditioning for the show. “I was confused by it because it was a very weird concept, marrying strangers,” he recalls. The audition process was a “gruelling” month, including four days with different expert combinations. “There was a part of me that was thinking, ‘well, if I don’t get it, it’s not going anywhere,” he laughs. “It’s a relationship show, it’s never going to be that hugely popular.”
The former cricketer turned clinical psychologist was no stranger to television at this stage, having first been discovered back in 2000 while wandering around a supermarket one hungover Sunday morning. “This chef jumped out with this film crew, and they wanted to come back to my apartment and cook a meal with whatever was in my trolley.” He politely declined, but said if they ever needed an onscreen psychologist, they could give him a call.
From there he says he “cut his teeth” across a number of dating and relationship shows, including a curious series called House Dates where single participants would visit open homes together. “Doing a dating show had been the furthest thing from my mind,” he says. “But the strangest thing was that when the camera was on me, I felt very calm and very relaxed. I found the performance side of it all really enjoyable and really exciting, which surprised me.”
He took that relaxed approach into season one of Married at First Sight Australia, which in 2014 was a wildly different offering to the jaw dropping juggernaut series we know today. “It was a very small show that was on once a week for an hour with just four couples. There were no dinner parties, no commitment ceremonies, nothing like that,” he recalls. “It seems so quaint in hindsight, more like an observational documentary than anything else.”
He was also certain that the show wouldn’t be a success. “I remember sitting in this little church with Tricia, the other expert, and we’re just saying, ‘this isn’t gonna go anywhere’,” he laughs. “This was a show that was mostly talking heads about people’s relationships, and we’re going up against people who are out there cooking, singing, dancing and renovating? No chance.”
Despite those humble beginnings, Married at First Sight Australia now screens in over 120 countries, and here in New Zealand has even outrated the 6pm news. Aiken says it was when the network decided to “supersize” the format in series four that it truly exploded. “Instead of one night a week, it went up to four nights a week. We brought in more couples, we brought in dinner parties and commitment ceremonies, and then we sat back to see what happened.”
Of course, Aiken wasn’t able to sit back at all. “That change actually had a huge impact on me because I was inserted into the experiment, instead of just being an observer,” he explains. Interacting with participants on the commitment ceremony couch and commentating the dramatic, wine-soaked dinner parties, he remembers feeling a distinct gear shift. “The show became so much bigger and essentially, everything started to become much more serious.”
Aiken has now become known for his stern reprimanding of poorly-behaved contestants on the MAFS couch, and he remembers the exact moment that era began. It was season seven, and he was listening to Susie berate her husband Billy on the couch. “At last night’s dinner party you got upset and had your little spaz,” she began. “Susie, I’m going to jump in here because I can’t just sit here anymore,” Aiken cut in as the other contestants gasped. “It is toxic, OK?”
Susie protested, stumbled over her words, and Aiken went for the jugular. “Cruel putdowns, eye-rolling, that is contempt and that is what you do.” Cut to more contestants, eyebrows raised, and mouths agape. “What I’m hearing in front of me and what I’m seeing in front of me needs to be called out.” After that night, he remembers a change in the air. “I could see that my role now was someone who was going to hold up a mirror, and give them some home truths.”
Despite all the allegations of hired actors and scripted conversations, Aiken maintains that his role on the show is authentic, and that he enters every commitment ceremony and dinner party with no knowledge of what has happened between the couples the days prior. “It’s more real than you would imagine, because when you’re in private practice, you send a couple away, you don’t see them for a week, and then they come back and explode in front of you just the same.”
The dinner parties and commitment ceremonies are two late nights in a row filmed back to back, and Aiken says filming can wrap as late as 5am. “It’s very draining and takes me several days to recover,” he says. “I basically hibernate during that time and recharge before I’ve got to go again the next week, go back to my cave and get ready for the bright lights again.” Tellingly, he says one of his favourite ways to decompress from MAFS is by watching true crime documentaries.
Aiken remembers having particularly energetic sparring sessions with Harrison Boon, who lied, manipulated and gaslit his way through season 10. “He was very much a charismatic Alpha who was going to come back at me hard, but it was very exciting to sit across from him,” he says. Rattling off more memorable monsters like Dan, Shannon and Adam, Aiken says he now feels a responsibility to call out bad behaviour on behalf of the audience watching at home.
“It is strangely now this kind of educational show, where people are learning about terms from the relationship world like gaslighting,” he says. “When I hold people to account, the audience are seeing that there is behaviour that’s appropriate and behaviour that’s inappropriate, which is a very effective way of learning.” Every year he gets emails from people all around the world telling him that they left a partner because of something they gleaned from watching MAFS.
While normalising terms like gaslighting has been positive, it has also led to contestants in more recent seasons weaponising or misusing therapy language to justify their behaviour. “A number of our participants will do things that are disrespectful, or at times plain offensive, but then qualify it by saying, ‘I’m just speaking my truth, don’t silence me John’,” he chuckles. “I’m all for people being honest, but you’ve also got to be respectful and humane.”
When asked whether it’s fair that a handful of contestants have to sacrifice themselves so publicly for the betterment of our collective understanding of relationships, Aiken maintains that everyone knows what they are signing up for with MAFS. “We certainly have a huge duty of care, service and focus for them before, during and after,” he explains. “But often they’re going in thinking they know what they’re like in relationships, when actually they’ve got no idea.”
In season 11, he says, things are no different. “After so many seasons, you’d think you’ve probably seen it all before by now. But this year is quite shocking,” he says. “A big thing this season is boundaries – what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate – and secrets. When should you be airing dirty laundry, or telling secrets about your partner to people?” There’s also a runaway groom, the worst best man’s speech on record, and the oldest participant in MAFS history.
But wait, there’s more. Aiken confirmed on AM last week that he will also be lending his expertise on Married At First Sight New Zealand later this year. “I can say the cast is very relatable, and the relationship problems are very universal,” he says. Where the New Zealand cast differs from Australia, he says, is in the group dynamic. “They were more unified and less combative as a group than the Australians and really wanted each other to get over the line,” he says.
With Married at First Sight Australia underway on Three, I ask Aiken how he felt about the 2023 season outrating the 6 pm news in New Zealand. “I’m shocked and surprised, but I’m really pleased,” he says. “In this day and age, when people can watch all sorts of different things, so many people are still choosing to tune in and watch a reality experiment that’s all talking heads about couples and feelings.
“When you say that out loud, it’s quite remarkable.”
Watch Married At First Sight Australia 7.30pm Monday-Thursday on Three or here on ThreeNow