The 1988 writers strike taught the folks at Fox that they could rely on their shows Cops and America’s Most Wanted to stay afloat. When talks of a 2001 strike began, CBS knew they had an ace-in-the-hole with Survivor. In fact, the show turned out to be one of the largest boons in the history of television. The “reality” genre exploded with every network jumping on board. When the 2008 writers strike rolled around, the writers were put in a tough spot -- somewhere between an unscripted, historical Presidential election and American Idol -- and we’ve just been stuck in reality hell ever since.
I don’t think anyone ever thought it would last this long. And I certainly don’t think anyone could have predicted that, when the writers got back to work, they’d write fictional shows that are supposed to look like reality shows. But here we are, lost in a sea of duck callers and dance groups. Some networks are better at executing the reality format than others. It’s tough to say which is the absolute best (probably Bravo), but I can tell you which is the worst: ABC. Yeah, I know they have Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor/Bachelorette (though really the concept of finding love this way is just bizarre) and everyone loves those. I know they have Extreme Weightloss and that’s fascinating. But this season they also have Bet On Your Baby, a show where families bet on their children’s ability to complete tasks, in exchange for money for their college funds; Splash, a rip-off of a British reality show where D-list celebs jump off a high dive; and the worst/best show on television Celebrity Wife Swap (FYI: Wife Swap was originally a British show too, so we aren’t even original in our misguided programming).
Pardon me, but how is this a real show? Am I the only person who remembers the Chappelle’s Show sketch “Trading Spouses?” The one where Dave Chappelle thought our nation’s reality show infatuation was so ridiculous that trading spouses seemed hysterical. Then it became an actual show (well, two, actually). Then, the geniuses at ABC decided to call up some non-busy celebrities to participate and Celebrity Wife Swap was born.
I don’t watch TV very often. I generally stick to Hulu Plus catch-ups after the original airing. However, on occasion I’ve been known to flip on the TV for some news or noise. On one such occasion, I was happy to discover a program where Coolio and Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray swap wives. I was riveted. My initial reaction was probably similar to yours, as evidenced by my tweets during the show.
Yet I was not deterred. In fact, I needed to watch this train derail. Coolio and Mark didn’t let me down. I watched in astonishment as the “Ganagta’s Paradise” rapper attempted ice skating with McGrath’s wife and then took suggestions on how to treat his woman from Mark.
And finally the shocking ending to the story, Exhibit C:
That’s right, Coolio’s two-job having, hard working, mother-of-three girlfriend Mimi learned her relationship was bogus through the swap and sent Coolio packing. I didn’t see that coming. I also couldn’t have predicted that I’d get hooked on Celebrity Wife Swap.
What makes CWS so titillating is that, this season, their formula is masterfully set up for conflict: First, they pair couples whose famous halves know each other from the past and usually have some kind of beef. Next, they carefully set up what they perceive to be the key difference between the families (e.g. child rearing habits, etc.), they add cameras and voila!
The worst/best reality show on TV is chock full of delicious awkwardness, Emmy-seeking tears, and extreme frivolousness.
Let’s see some examples, shall we?
Melissa Rivers vs. Bristol Palin
You don’t even have to watch this episode to know that it was just a ploy to get Joan Rives and Bristol Palin in the same room after Rivers ridiculed young Palin during her DWTS stint. Well played, ABC.
This battle royale boils down to fashion vs. frump. They make sure to mention how important fashion is to Melissa (and of course her mother Joan) and point out how the Palin girls are proud of their cozy clothes. Beyond that, we learn that Melissa’s son Cooper is surprisingly well-adjusted for being raised by the Rivers and that Bristol is masterful at dodging political conversations. In the end, they all teach each other manners and hug. Bristol Palin got Joan Rivers to eat her words, who’d a thunk it?
Alan Thicke vs. Gilbert Gottfried
This silly story focuses on the cheap vs. the extravagant. Here we learn that Thicke fired Gottfried from his short-lived late night talk show Thicke of the Night and Gottfried is the cheapest human being on the planet. Gottfried wastes no time sexually harassing Thicke’s totally-hot-in-the-'80s wife, Tanya, while Alan Thicke impresses friends with a horrible Gilbert Gottfried impersonation.
Turns out both families lead completely ridiculous lifestyles. The Thickes adorn their walls with portraits of Tanya and the Gottfrieds shop exclusively at the 99 Cent store.
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair vs. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
Even '80s WWF fans can enjoy Celebrity Wife Swap! What a clever trick by the ABC bigwigs! Pinning WWF rivals Ric Flair and Roddy Piper against one another in the ol’ wife swap = brilliant. And oh does this rivaly run deep! Turns out, Ric and Roddy don’t just know one another, but Roddy and his wife Kitty were in Ric’s first wedding. Now on wife #4, Ric lives a flashy lifestyle in Charlotte, while Roddy, Kitty and the kids hole up in their Oregon home Howard Hughes style.
By the end of the Swap, Ric Flair is reduced to tears when he finally admits he’s still hanging on to his glory days, and Roddy Piper decides to take his wife out to dinner.
Though it is still unclear to me why a celebrity of any level would choose to participate in this show knowing that it only serves to reveal all of their at home weirdness, if they’re willing to do it, I am willing to watch.
Celebrity Wife Swap airs Sundays on ABC.