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TV Series Review

Don’t worry, nobody’s sharing bedrooms. Based on a British hit, Wife Swap (ABC) always follows two families from entirely different worlds who trade wives/moms for two weeks. During the first seven days, each wife must abide by whatever family traditions are in place. In week two, the wives get to rule their new roosts. Then the women are reunited with their real families, and the two couples debrief on camera.

As with most reality shows, Wife Swap sets the stage for potential conflict by pitting opposing lifestyles against each other. One episode featured a rich metropolitan clothes horse who lets her four maids care for her three children while she goes shopping. Her temporary replacement was a country wife who chops wood for six hours, drives a school bus and does all the household cooking and cleaning. Another show featured a hands-off mom who lets her 10-year-old daughter do and say whatever she wants. Her counter was, predictably, a disciplinarian who believes children should be seen and not heard.

Whatever social class or parenting mold the wives hail from, the underlying message is the same: The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Most often, both families walk away more appreciative of the woman in their lives. They’re also challenged to improve their habits based on lessons learned from the two-week experiment. But it’s the secondary, less obvious messages (how to raise kids, what constitutes a happy home, how marriages work best) that provide helpful examples of how not to raise a family. For instance, a fun-loving mom may still prefer her method of befriending kids rather than disciplining them. Yet viewers can’t help but notice how badly her wild kids crave authority, structure and boundaries.

Wife Swap subtly displays the value of responsibility, hard work, rules, partnership in marriage, forgiveness and appreciation. It’s easy, however, to miss these lean nuggets of truth amid the show’s obsession with the fringe. From extreme situations to extreme behavior, it revels in the near-absurd. For example, last month an episode looked to create chaos by pairing a loving family of punk-rockers with legalistic Christians who punish children by forcing them to write out chapters of the Bible. It worked.

Furthermore, how “real” is television in which every camera angle, interview and heated conflict is edited according to the producers’ slant? What normal American family would hurl insults at a houseguest three days into her stay? One Wife Swap participant said, “They wanted an entertaining show, most of it at my expense.” Welcome to the world of reality TV.

Episodes Reviewed: Sept. 26, 29, Oct. 6, 20, 27, Dec. 8, 2004


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