Guilty Pleasure, 2010: TV Tales of Jaw-Dropping, Terrifying Marriages

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Some television shows – hell, entire television networks – are built around the close-up of the jaw-dropping train wreck. Tales of voyeuristic catharsis, where us viewers can take a collective deep breath and thank the heavens that, no matter how bad things get, at least we don’t have it that bad.

I’m talking about the I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant and Hoarders‘ of the world, the TV shows that glimpse people going through traumatic ordeals, attracting the kinds of viewers who turned into Jon & Kate Plus 8 only after there was a tabloid scandal to match. For that crowd, there’s a new guilty pleasure that might just turn out to be the best yet: Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry? which premiered last night on Investigation Discovery. Welcome to the bizarro universe where marriages go very, very wrong.

It’s hard to pinpoint what precisely it was about last night’s premiere that I found so satisfying. In theory, I should be mortified by the show. But call it the New York Post factor – the crime story so bizarre, so convoluted, that you simply have to read the whole story, and then share it with everyone you know (maybe in 2010, the more apt term would be the ‘retweet factor’). This is precisely what happens with the other shows I mentioned above – when it comes to the hoarder who actually finds dead cat carcasses beneath her garbage, or to the post-scandal Gosselin family picnic that might just go down as the worst family outing in history. It’s so unmentionable, that you simply have to talk about it.

Some scandals just demand your attention – such as the wedding scandal of Donna Anderson, a copywriter in Atlantic City who posted an online personal ad in 1996 and wound up connecting with a self-described “Sean Connery lookalike” named James Montgomery. As is often the case with shows like Who The (Bleep) Did I Marry the more painful the tale, the more gleefully addictive, and Anderson’s story is a whopper. Let us summarize it all by outlining the lessons learned: On a first date, any talk of a business plan involving the opening of an electronic theme park for adults should be considered a red flag. One should hesitate before saying yes to a marriage proposal that occurs on day four of the relationship. One might consider stretching the engagement beyond four months, just to give the relationship a full test. When approached by your husband – who has never held down a job – to invest $20,000 in a business scheme that no one else has yet invested in, one should give it some serious thought. Maybe play a game of Devil’s Advocate.

And after discovering a folder filled with Polaroids of naked women, don’t just take your husband at his word. Press the issue a bit. Really take the time to figure things out at that juncture, before it all veers into insanity.

Yes, this all really happened to poor Donna, and yes, it’s a fascinating spiral to behold. And by having Donna pause at each juncture to explain just what it was she was thinking, what rationalizations she was telling herself, and how this polygamist con man managed to dupe her into giving him both her heart and her life savings, there’s just enough depth added to the raw chronolgy to make Who the (Bleep) insightful. There was also something kind of wonderful at the end of Donna’s story, an epilogue of sorts that detailed how she exacted her revenge against the bum, telephoning his other wives and tracking him down as far away as Australia, where she was able to expose him for the criminal he was.

Unlike most New York Post headlines, which focus purely on the most immediate and salacious details, it’s nice to go back to older melodramas and to document what’s  happened in the years since, how Donna went on to find another lover and live happily ever after.

For a certain breed of viewer in a certain type of mood, there are times when only a tawdry program about shocking incidents will do. When, after the end of a very pedestrian day, you want to behold someone totally out of the ordinary, coping with and overcoming something truly grotesque or bizarre. These are the stories that have fed a tabloid industry for centuries, and when it comes to like-minded cable diversions, Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry? is right up there with the best of the worst.

It airs Wednesdays at 10 (check out the show’s web site).