It’s easy to criticize “Wife Swap” for its extreme set-ups. For two weeks, two polar opposite families swap wives in the reality TV version of “the grass is always greener.” The first week, the women have to follow their new family’s rules. The second week, they can introduce their own. Frustration and resentment set in as the family who, in one episode, hunts for their nightly meal has to suddenly listen to a pageant mom from the suburbs who demands that they eat their dinner at a table and clean up the 20 pounds of laundry that has taken over their living room.
Meanwhile, the pageant mom’s house is taken over by a self-named “modern redneck” who makes her new “husband” wear camouflage and throws her temporary kids’ schedules out the window. It’s chaos versus order, disciplines versus no rules, city versus country, conservative versus liberal. The families are paired for maximum dramatic impact as they struggle to understand a way of life that is entirely opposite to their world view. It’s an artificial social experiment but it wouldn’t work any other way. How interesting would it be to watch two families whose only real difference is what time they put their kids to bed at night?
The point of “Wife Swap” is to use extremes to cause tension and arguments and the participants know the drill. This makes their outrage at having to follow new household rules disingenuous but also amusing. As a viewer, you know that the modern redneck’s husband is going to be unhappy folding the 20 pounds of laundry, what he considers to be “woman’s work,” but it’s still entertaining to see just how unhappy. Making him get a pedicure is practically scripted but watching him literally jump out of the chair every few minutes is pretty funny. It’s these real moments within the performance that make the show watchable.
The series, which has been on air since 2004, also relies on a good dose of self-righteousness from its participants. While they usually claim that their reason for taking part is to learn from other people’s parenting skills or household routines, they believe that their way is the correct way. The opening profiles of the two families plant this idea and it’s revisited when the families meet to talk about things after the two weeks end. But after the nasty comments about each family’s lifestyle fly back and forth across the table, tears flow, faults are admitted and lessons are learned. Yes, the modern redneck admits, she does need to take more pride in the cleanliness of her home. And yes, pageant mom declares, she does need to relax her kids’ daily schedules. They hug it out and go back to their lives, filled with appreciation for what they have and determination to change a few things. Then a two week update flashes across the screen. Modern redneck’s mountain of laundry hasn’t returned…yet and pageant mom’s kids are still putting in a 40 hour week of activities. I would say “so much for the reality of reality TV” but I know you know better.
“Wife Swap” is on Thursdays at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC.