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ABC's Assault on Marriage

Last night the Disney network took a hatchet to matrimony.

9:00 AM, Apr 26, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THE LINEUP on ABC last night was a grim treat. Like some awful before-and-after comparison, a show about hot young singles was followed by a show about ill-dressed, unhappy married people. The former was a reality game show, "The Bachelor," in which twenty-five young, attractive women with few qualms about televised courtship pursued one lucky guy. The latter was a "Primetime" special about failing marriages, in which two couples, with few qualms about televised domestic disputes, fought about anything and everything.

In the tale of one city, women are abundant and beautiful and fawning over the only man around. They gather en masse for something like group dates, but it's this one guy who's dating the whole group. Every scene takes place in some gorgeous house and when the man begins to pay individual attention to some of these ladies, they go out to exotic locales and stay in more beautiful houses. It is a handsome people that appears on this show, and they enjoy lots of food and drink rich-looking red wines. Oh, and the women are costumed in expensive fancy clothing from sponsoring designers.

In the other city, people are overweight. They have bad taste in sunglasses. Their houses, even when they appear to be clean, look inhospitable and germy. The children wear untucked shirts, rooms are crowded with high seats, and tables are covered with spilled juice cups. The women tend to be bulky and frowning, the men (well, there are only two of them) are either whip-thin or breasty. During a marathon fight in one of the households, the husband is dressed in long denim shorts, but is wearing no shirt. He sits at the dining room table with his wife yelling at him, "When I was pregnant, . . . I had to beg you to rub my feet." He yells back, "Did you ever rub my feet?"

Just before a commercial break on "The Bachelor," the audience is told that 23 of the 25 women on the show have college degrees. So their participation can't be blamed on a lack of education. It could be that they didn't go to the right schools. The bachelor himself went to Harvard. Then again, maybe it is a question of going to the right schools. The most refreshing moment of the two-hour extravaganza comes when the host does some final debriefing with one of the young ladies who didn't make the cut. Have you changed anything since getting knocked from the show, the host asks. "I colored my hair a little and I enhanced myself . . . in the chest region." Another took rejection with less aplomb, suffering a panic attack when she realized she wouldn't be on the next episode.

Telling words and revealing actions were not so easily obtained on the "Primetime" special. For these struggling married couples, said the very serious narrator, "wedlock has become a padlock." Pointing out that conflict might be lurking beneath an otherwise calm surface, the very serious narrator said that arguments are "like icebergs floating in the kitchen." When the blade-thin husband admits to having cheated on his wife, he says, "I stepped outside my relationship." When he and his wife fail to make up, "a chance for communion ends in isolation." Perhaps the producers should try to enhance the show in the metaphor and euphemism region.

With barely a nod in its direction, "The Bachelor" rejects the myth that for every one heart there is only one true love. The show's replacement myth is that for any one heart there are multiple possibilities and it's really of question of finding the right set-up. The "Primetime" special hypes itself as news-you-can-use to save your own marriage and to prove this point has Diane Sawyer shilling out some closing words of advice. But no one buys that. With its grainy footage and beady-eyed spouses, "Primetime" is the real hit piece on marriage. "The Bachelor" doesn't quite pretend to be real; in fact the season ends without the guy actually being engaged to the final female contestant. Brimming with moral urgency, however, "Primetime" educates us on the humiliations of marriage under the guise of trying to save it.

If only the heart refused to accommodate more than one person at any given time, maybe we wouldn't have shows like "The Bachelor." But if we didn't create a popular culture separate and in opposition to marriage, we'd probably have fewer shows like the "Primetime" special as well.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.