Aaron Yap has become obsessed with the latest season of Married at First Sight Australia. He explains why the ingenious reality show puts traditional scripted television to shame.
I wouldn’t consider myself an avid reality TV viewer, but I am admittedly susceptible to the cheap, junky pleasures of the genre. The more fucked-up the hook, the quicker my wall crumbles. The current, almost-transcendent season of Married at First Sight on Three has positively demolished that wall. It’s a corker, barreling full speed ahead towards trash-telly nirvana. It’s the difference between a watchable time-waster and an unmissable, unputdownable, undeniable piece of TV. It’s even possibly more jaw-dropping and ingeniously plotted than any traditionally scripted series I’ve seen this year.
The premise is all there in the title. A group of single men and women are matched by so-called relationship experts. The twist: they will meet for the first time at the altar. It’s like a blind date where there’s no going back – well, for two months at least. Imagine The Bachelor flipped. You only get to know your other half after the knot is tied. But while the show traffics in grand, earnest high-drama notions of compatibility, sacrifice and friend-zoning, it also purports to be a pathway to self-improvement (as much as being eyeballed by millions as you fumble to attain everlasting marital bliss can achieve anyway).
Previously focused on five couples, the show has opted to upsize its cast to ten couples for season four. The decision initially seemed like overkill, if only because we have to get through five episodes of weddings before reaching the really good stuff. Still, these weddings are a goldmine of tense emotion-packed viewing. We come for the sweat, tears, anxieties and second-guessing of the brides-and-grooms-to-be, but stay for the ensuing carnage of the matchmaking results. The money shot is when the couples finally meet, their reactions captured in inescapable, brutally revealing close-ups.
The heavily manufactured nature of the show isn’t lost on me. The relationships experts, probably working with significant producer input, are essentially expert casting directors. As much as the process is said to rely on “science” – pinpointing character traits that complement each other – a massive part of MAFS’ appeal is the fascinating, some might say sadistic, fitting of a square peg into a round hole. A display of instant chemistry warms the heart, such as the sweeping, passionate union of farmer Sean and truck driver Susan. But more than often not, the cringe of couples not getting what each other “ordered” reigns supreme, like former model Deborah discovering her request for a Polynesian man turns out to be a very-Aussie footie-loving dad of two.
At its most rewarding, the show highlights our ridiculously picky perfect-partner ideals and the fallacy of algorithmic, box-ticking dating formulas (see stripper Michael’s ruthless “small ear lobes, under 60kg” parameters). It’s easy to make sense of physical attraction between a conventionally good-looking couple like Nick and Sharon, but the awkward pairing of sweet, bubbly nurse Alene and frizzy-haired country boy Simon has been among the season’s unexpectedly moving highlights. Their arc is a persuasive testament to the potential of a relationship to grow, change and adapt over time without the head-start of immediate chemistry.
Yet for all these psychological guinea-pig-experiment insights, it’s only in these final stretches that I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for MAFS’s script craft. It’s not like there has been a lack of cliffhangers to keep viewers on tenterhooks throughout the season. Will introverted ex-soldier Andrew come of his shell enough to win over rambunctious student Vanessa? Will commercial cleaner Michelle move fruit seller Jesse out of the friend zone? Will Sean and Susan overcome the obstacle of their wildly different lifestyles? Embedded in all of these dramatic arcs was a twist that was hard to see coming, but hiding in plain view: the evolution of an unlikely villain. Yes, MAFS is a stealth thriller.
One of the earliest, most explosive turns was the untimely dissolution of firefighter Andrew and car sales consultant Lauren’s marriage. Long story short: after a seemingly smooth wedding reception, Lauren bailed on Andrew. The experts tried to patch things up, but the understandably hurt and jilted Andrew decided not to continue the experiment with Lauren. However, a second chance materialised when hairdresser Cheryl, also burned from a doomed match, approached the producers to pursue Andrew, sensing they had a wee spark during one of the couples-get-together dinner parties.
Everyone loves a good second chance story. We’re rooting for a happy ending for these two. Their first two dates would indicate heading in that direction. But what’s interesting is that the show reserves a lot of goodwill and sympathy for Andrew, so much more than Cheryl. He seems like a slam-dunk. A firefighter. A music teacher for kids. He’ll write cute songs about you in a flash. Furthermore, the rest of the MAFS gang show mad affection towards him, particularly his Perth hometown mates, twins Sharon and Michelle, who refer to him fondly as “Jonesy”. Poor Jonesy, why would his wife run out on him like that??
Comparatively, Cheryl isn’t someone who’s been granted the same level of warmth. When the pair surprise the other couples with their return, Andrew is welcomed with open arms by the others. Cheryl, on the other hand, spends the rest of the episode getting ripped to shreds for pursuing Andrew. It didn’t “look good” for her, as she had, not too long ago, called out her former husband Jonathan for text-flirting with Michael’s wife Scarlett. “You gotta get it right this time,” says racing commentator Anthony, thus far the show’s most clear-cut antagonist, “or you’re going to looking like a fucking idiot.”
It was difficult to see at the time, but the turbulent vortex opened up by this dynamic effectively set the foundation for the forthcoming, holy-shit-is-this-happening-right-now trainwreck of a climax. Subsequently, everything seemed to snowball rapidly. On an otherwise pleasant beach date, Cheryl deflects Andrew’s advances: “I don’t want to kiss you.” Boom. During their homestay, Andrew is grilled and insulted relentlessly by Cheryl’s dad: “You don’t exist to me, you’re nothing.” Boom. Frustrated by the way things are going, Andrew, inebriated, goes on an anti-Cheryl war-path on their boys night out, bagging her mercilessly to the extent that Sean, deeply troubled by Andrew’s unpleasant comments, felt the need to tell Cheryl the next day.
Come next dinner party, the gloves are off as the chatter shifts to boys night, with Cheryl confronting Andrew about his conduct. “Did you have my back?” she asks, multiple times, standing her ground and handling the uncomfortable situation with poise. Andrew, in every way possible, avoids answering her and taking responsibility, instead dragging the conversation down to the gutter. “You’re full of shit,” he blurts out. He claims to not remember anything from the night (“hazy”). He begins to childishly mimic her voice (are his students watching this?). Anthony chimes in with some repulsive “boys will be boys”, “it’s just a bit of light-heart banter” reasoning. Sean and Simon, the least macho-blokey dudes of the pack, do their best to speak out against them. Meanwhile, the experts are sitting there, watching their monitors, hilariously composed, but probably screaming internally with delight, saying things like, “it’s getting nasty isn’t it?”
This was the perfect dinner party from hell. And it was breathtaking. A beautiful bloodbath.
In a superhero story, Jonesy would be the ego-bruised, beaten-down failure. Once innocuous, but now unveiling the hitherto dormant ugliness, full of resentment and repressed rage, beneath the “nice guy” mask. It was a powerful moment – the affable, hunky fireman was actually bloody Cartman from South Park all along! The showrunners played us well. The format’s structural rigour – dates, family meets, dinner parties, commitment ceremonies – lulled us into complacency. It seemed like we had already got our Big Bad in Anthony. Blunt, competitive, tactless Anthony. This is the man who calls his partner Nadia “frigid”, puts horses before women and, for a huge chunk of the show, was most the obvious choice for a villain because his old-fashioned values took us back to the dark ages. Looking back, it’s pretty curious that of all the bro-bonding in the show, Anthony and Jonesy’s was the most pronounced. Foreshadowing, people. Scriptwriting 101.
A psychologist has hit out against MAFS, lambasting it as “the psychological sewer of Australian television”. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I’m in too deep to climb out of the muck. The renewal of vows are coming up. Stay or Leave? Me:
Married at First Sight Australia airs on Three at 7.30pm Tuesday-Thurs, click here to watch online
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