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Rules of Enragement: CBS Arranges Marriages, Controversy

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I’m going to be on NPR’s All Things Considered this evening talking about the news that CBS has signed up a reality show involving arranged marriages from Magical Elves, the production team behind Top Chef (and, formerly, Project Runway). According to the Hollywood Reporter, on Arranged Marriage, four adults from 25 to 45 in age have spouses selected for them by their loved ones and tie the knot; the series is to follow their marriages. 

The series is, of course, generating comments and news items—like the segment I’ll be on—about “whether TV has gone too far.” Generating that kind of buzz and controversy is part of the reason producers and executives are paid the big bucks to develop these series. But what I’ll say is what I’m saying to NPR: that although there’s an established ritual by now of people getting exercised by the premise of a reality show before it even exists, the tastefulness or tastelessness all depends on the execution. You can’t know if TV has gone too far until it actually goes there. 

I’ve seen plenty of these pre-emptive controversies as a TV critic. One that comes to mind was UPN’s Amish in the City, which put Amish kids and city kids together in a Real World-style house. The show was condemned in advance as offensive—surely it would set up the Amish kids as ignorant hayseeds to be mocked. But the actual series was not just respectful, but really good: the Amish housemates proved to be much more interesting, thoughtful and grounded in their beliefs that the secular-world kids, who weren’t interested in much more than partying. 

[Update: Actually, an even better example occurs to me—ABC’s Welcome to the Neighborhood, in which seven couples, including a gay couple and other minorities, competed to win a house and were judged by their conservative potential neighbors. The show was protested in advance as promoting bigotry and ABC ended up pulling it; but after seeing the entire series, gay advocacy group GLAAD said that after their initial reservations, they saw that the show promoted tolerance and hoped ABC would air it. ABC never did.]

All of which is to say that you could make Arranged Marriage crappy and exploitative, or you could not. I don’t want to pre-emptively defend the show any more than pre-emptively slam it, but it is interesting that the show comes from Magical Elves, whose competition shows for Bravo are not just well-produced but (for reality game shows) fairly thoughtful about the creative process. They’re not the sort of people you would think would make Rock of Love—which is not to say they couldn’t. (I am a little perplexed, though, as to what this means for the exclusive deal Magical Elves had reportedly signed with NBC Universal.)

Considering that none of the participants are being enslaved here, I don’t think you can say the premise is inherently wrong unless you believe arranged marriage is inherently wrong, which I’m not ready to argue. People have come up with any number of social rituals for finding partners, from arranged betrothals to Match.com. (Even though I personally don’t like other people ordering my food, much less picking my spouse. But I’m Western that way.)

So do you hate the idea? Will you watch? Will you hate yourself for watching?

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