You may not learn anything from the lab-coated matchmaking experts of Married at First Sight, but the show captures the reality of today’s dating culture. By Helen Razer.

Married at First Sight

Anthony and Nadia on Married at First Sight.
Anthony and Nadia on Married at First Sight.
Credit: Channel Nine

In this story

There is an apocryphal tale about a real physicist that has been told for more than half a century. It starts with an unnamed guest approaching the country home of the famous Niels Bohr. The visitor is surprised to find a lucky horseshoe hanging above the front door of quantum theory. Eventually, the visitor is moved to ask the scientist if he truly places his faith in this trinket. “Of course not,” Bohr is reported to have said. “But I understand it’s lucky whether you believe in it or not.”

This anecdote was brought to my mind last week while watching Nine’s Married at First Sight. And, no, not only because the reality television program’s origins are, as Bohr’s were, Danish. It’s because the story is the obverse of that which unfolds on this very terrible, very compelling show.

If you’ve not yet seen Married, I do not recommend that you correct this. You almost certainly have better ways to dispose of your time. This program – which does not officially marry its participants, but simply places them together in unsightly fashions in front of a celebrant, then forces them through a cruelly accelerated monogamy obstacle course – is not easy to quit. Even in an era when we have lost much of our hope for the institutions of both marriage and reality television, the show is curiously gripping.

The story about Bohr, surveyor of the atom, is still relayed because it makes a cute point about the limits of the greatest human reason: Even a Nobel laureate can permit himself a moment of unreason and put his science aside. Contestants on Married at First Sight are asked to put their unreasonable hopes for love aside and trust instead in science. Or “hard science”, as John Aiken, psychologist and one of the program’s three credentialed scientist-hosts, prefers to describe it when contestants demand to know, as Debbie from the Gold Coast did repeatedly, “Why did you put me with that guy?”

In news that will surprise no one who has ever glanced at a periodic table, the “hard science” used for matchmaking purposes on this reality romance outing seems pretty soft when compared to, say, the algorithms of Tinder or the physics of boiling an egg. Especially those bits that invoke our era’s phrenology, neuroscience.

If you thought broadcaster Todd Sampson’s TV claims about his “hacked brain” from within an MRI machine sounded like the shonky script for an energy drink commercial, you’re yet to see the techniques of Dr Trisha Stratford. Trish may be armed with only a handful of Petri dishes and some brain electrodes, possibly acquired by Channel Nine from a Scientology fire sale but, in the best and newly emerged traditions of her non-discipline, Trish is undeterred by an overwhelming lack of evidence or theory. She keeps saying unverifiable things about “neurochemicals!” and “cocktails of confusing neurochemicals!” between every ad break.

Psychological testing of Married contestants for partner compatibility by Aiken and fellow practitioner Mel Schilling seems about as comprehensive as a form one might fill out prior to an evening of bulk-billed speed dating. The pair ask a range of singles what they’re looking for, the singles usually say “love”, and then the three hard scientists get together to paw at something that looks like an enormous iPad, pausing occasionally to congratulate each other on their Bohr-level use of method. “I’m so excited by this couple’s pheromones,” Trish might say. “I think they’ll really open each other up,” is something Mel may offer.

The team may claim the legitimacy of the lab coat but we viewers always know better. Married is a hot mess whose four seasons have, I think, produced just one enduring relationship. It is always plain to us that the science of romantic complementarity, if it exists at all, has been corrupted in favour of some made-for-TV explosions. Which you would certainly know well if you followed Debbie from the Gold Coast to her disastrous Polynesian honeymoon.

Although the hosts keep reassuring coupled contestants that they have been “scientifically” matched, no viewer could genuinely believe it. We all know it’s a rort. That those who consent to be fake-married on TV do believe it is the program’s great charm. Just like most of us when confronted with even the merest possibility of love, they come over all fuzzy. They understand that love is possible, whether they believe in it or not.

This is not to say that every Married participant is a naif – although I do have my concerns for the general safety of recently ousted Scarlett, or, indeed, any adult woman who elects to dot her handwritten “i”s with hearts. Some who have joined a program cultishly referred to by its hosts as “the experiment” seem actually bright. Well, Zoe from season one and Simone from season two seem actually bright. Otherwise, participants seem at least qualified to write their names in the sand with a stick – which they often do, inside a great heart while enjoying for-TV honeymoons at Airlie Beach.

There are, inevitably, a few participants seeking fame rather than long-term partnership. A meticulously written account of such duplicity can be found in the online journal of Simone from season two. Simone reports that her TV husband, Xavier, for whom she “walked down the aisle four times, said my vows three times, and … kissed at the altar twice”, was quite open, off camera, about being in the thing only to get a gig as a sportscaster. He was, in fact, inordinately fond of soccer and was more aroused by the vision “of a black-and-white ball rolling across lush green” than that of Simone “half-naked in nothing but black lace underwear”.

Clare from season three chose eBay as her medium to describe the cynicism of her TV husband, Jono. In an item description for the Married-provided wedding dress she was auctioning, she wrote, “Worn for one day while marrying a stranger on TV who turned out to be a total wankpuffin”.

The ambitious wankpuffery of your Xaviers and Jonos aside, I remain convinced that a majority of contestants uphold a hope for the promise of something like love. Unlike Trish’s “hard science”, this longing is stubbornly soft and real.

This authenticity may be due in part to a format that requires its couples to live together, where possible, in their usual residences. There’s no slick Bachelor pad to distance them from the everyday and no make-up artist on hand to conceal their spousal blemishes. Just last week, Jesse, the cheeky fruiterer, forgot himself and pooped in the bathroom as Michelle, the gorgeous industrial cleaner, was doing her face.

The planned artlessness of the show is occasional fun, but it’s not the reason that it works.

We do not have producers, perhaps not even casting agents, to thank for this strange success. Married at First Sight, really, is just another romance reality excursion free from the informational depth of a good older program such as SBS’s Desperately Seeking Sheila. No one made this program hoping that we would learn from it, and someone certainly wrote its narration with the forgetful weeknight lush in mind – how many times must we hear that Jesse took a dump or of Debbie’s profound disappointment that her husband was not Polynesian? Sufficient for the news to penetrate a flask of pinot grigio, apparently.

The thing that makes it good is its chance reflection of current romantic reality. Both audience and participants are aware of, if not directly engaged with, an emerged dating culture whose inhabitants careen from hope to disappointment, sometimes in a matter of minutes. The online romantic will have likely encountered both the scientistic claims of “psychographic” dating apps and the pure fluke of Tinder, both of which are echoed in the hokey words of our science-hosts. “You can never count on chemistry,” is exactly the sort of thing that Aiken might say, immediately following one of his declarations about “hard science”. I can affirm that this oscillation between faith in the numbers and faith in love is unnervingly familiar. Like many Australians, I have made many terrible, and a handful of joyous, dates with the assistance of the internet.

Reality TV can be quite affecting if it clashes with its instant. Big Brother acquired its biggest audience in the first moments of the age of mass surveillance. MasterChef, a show about aspirational stay-at-home cooks, hit in the months following the global financial crisis – like the dance-a-thons of the Depression era, it promised reward for exceptional sweat and endurance. Neither of these programs was especially good. But, like Married, they happened to address their ideal moment.

There is no hard science to guarantee success in reality TV. There is no hard science to guarantee success in love. The victory of both are accidents of space-time, as Bohr would possibly agree. These are matters only for luck, whether you believe in it or not.


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FESTIVAL World Science Festival

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2017 as "Love actuarially".

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