Alex Casey watches The Seven Year Switch on TVNZ2, a familiar-sounding social experiment that matches up married people with complete strangers.
There are perhaps no sweeter three words to the gnarled ear of a television writer than the phrase “controversial social experiment.” The latest series to return to this increasingly-full arena is the second season of Australia’s The Seven Year Switch, a spiritual sequel to Married at First Sight. Taking four long-term couples on the brink of separation, two psychologists rematch them with one another and force them to live with a stranger for three weeks. The goal? To “hold up a mirror”, “open them up to change” and, most importantly, make some bloody tense television.
As with all of these relationship shows, the premise falls apart if you haven’t got the explosive talent to keep greedy eyes away from the seductive gaze of a phone. Seven Year Switch has a few, from the tight-lipped, perpetually camo-wearing “Sarge” to Valley girl Kaitlyn, who needs to up her maturity levels and specifically “stop yelling out personal things on the tram.” There are spouses who have been together for 11 years and had multiple children, and some that are just coming up to two year anniversary. In the first episode, there are two counts of people throwing things across the dinner table.
Jo Lamble and Peter Charleston are the two professionals in charge of the experiment, which is essentially Wife Swap wearing a lab coat and specs. As with Married at First Sight, the presence of therapists lends an air of legitimacy to what would otherwise be a keys-in-the-bowl situation that someone decided to film. Lamble and Langstone take time to visit the couples in their homes, the setting becoming a character to be analysed in itself. Mark’s man cave has remained the same since Kaitlyn moved in two years ago, her presence barely felt between the posters of Sly Stallone and The Terminator.
Along with these fascinating relationship clues – that are impossible not to look for in your own life – there are raw moments between the contestants that MAFSNZ can’t manufacture. Namely, it’s the subtle ammunition that can only be collected between two people who have shared their lives with each other for a bit longer than a couple of weeks in a plush Auckland apartment. “If you love me, I shouldn’t have to say what’s wrong,” says Tracey to Johnny as she angrily packs things away in the kitchen. “We have a love / hate relationship,” says Michael, of his partner and paleo baker Felicity. “I love her and she hates me.”
When the couples are re-matched and re-homed, they must endure the least naturalistic scene in any social experiment: telling the friends and family. At least the reactions in Seven Year Switch speak real truth to power. “I think it’s a little bit… wrong,” says a member of Tracey’s family. “Wow,” says another, plainly, “that’s not going to work.” As they part ways for three weeks, the rules are made clear: no monkey business and no sharing beds. Kaitlyn, the one who shares too much information on the tram, brings out a huge vibrator. She talks into it like a microphone: “Wouldn’t you rather me use this than be tempted by another man?”
Airing three nights of the week on TVNZ2, there’s every chance this will fill the MAFSNZ-shaped hole in your life, and every chance this is the kind of heartbreak gold that could work wonderfully on our fair shores. Tony Jones of MAFSNZ has referred to some of his own Kiwi clients coming to counselling after seeing it depicted in similar shows such as The Last Resort, which goes to show the real-world effect of these outlandish social experiments for couples sitting on the couch at home. Perhaps it’s time we stop trying to blossom TV romances in The Bachelor, First Dates and MAFSNZ, and focus on the fertile ground at the other end of the relationship spectrum?
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