Wife Swap is part of the hot new reality trend this season: family switching. Here, two women trade lives for two weeks. For the first week, they attempt to act like the replaced wife and mother. Each woman leaves a “Household Manual” laying down the rules of their roost. The visiting woman, chastely housed in the guestroom, tries to follow those prescriptions, from how to cook the husband’s breakfast to how to get the kids to clean their rooms. During the second week, however, the visiting wife gets to make over this new family to suit her desires. As each woman imposes her own domestic vision on someone else’s household, the program showcases conflicting ideas of good housekeeping, parenting, and proscribed roles for husbands and wives.
What is fascinating about this series and others like it is the motivating belief that, if you go behind the closed doors of your neighbor’s house, you will be able to judge that other life and also learn some deep “truth” about your own. The producers set up this self-questioning when they have the women answer standard questions about their lives for the “Household Manual,” and each episode ends with the two couples meeting to discuss what they “learned” about themselves during the switch. The implication is that viewers at home will watch these real people going through this process and engage in similar self-analysis.
Based on a hit British series, Wife Swap is competing with Fox’s Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy. Much to ABC’s public dismay, Fox seized the same concept and won the race to air: Trading premiered on 20 July, and Wife Swap “previewed” on 26 September, before it premiered on the 29th. Yet ABC is the “winner” here, as Wife Swap improves on the Fox show, insistently touting its personal growth mantra as participants’ main incentive—in addition to quick fame or infamy. Trading Spouses, on the other hand, merely gives the women a $50,000 prize, so the financial reward trumps any soul-searching.
Both shows use race and class differences to spark conflict, switching women with some major identity categories at odds. In the series premiere of Wife Swap, Jodi Spolansky, a Manhattan millionaire heiress who has never worked a day in her life and has four nannies to care for her three children, changes places with Lynn Bradley, a working class rural New Jersey bus driver and wood chopper with two kids and a husband, Brad, who does not help her with the chores. Brad challenges Jodi’s snobbery while Jodi’s husband Steven derides Lynn as a country bumpkin.
To its credit, Wife Swap attempts to move beyond such stock stereotypes. After several shouting matches, Brad and Jodi start to communicate, share their different viewpoints, and see beyond the trappings of social status and other identity props. They make friends with each other. Brad listens to Jodi and decides he should help around the house more and try to be a more sensitive husband. As a result of living Lynn’s life, Jodi resolves to spend more time with her kids.
It’s not all rosy. Lynn is so turned off by Steven’s ridicule and unwillingness to listen to her that she leaves the opulent Spolansky apartment a day early, and Steven seems merely bemused by the whole experiment when the two couples meet. So, the show likes to have it both ways: the edited narrative focuses on people critiquing their own preconceptions, but it also makes fun of the participants and sometimes pigeonholes them. While framing Brad as a boor for his upper-class pretensions, the episode also plays a parody of Deliverance-style bluegrass music as a leitmotif in Lynn’s scenes and sensationalizes things she doesn’t know about the city. The editing embraces Lynn’s common sense critiques of rich urbanites at times, but at others, it engages in a troubling ridicule of her working class status.
For every one of its stereotypes, however, Wife Swap offers a counter dynamic, something unexpected. The series “preview,” for example, eschews some of the easier chair-throwing, Jerry Springer-style social tensions and instead heads for the undiscovered country of personality quirks and odd personal taste, allowing the women to be individuals rather than clichés. Caprice Policchio, an obsessive cleaner and organizer from Pennsylvania with a husband and two kids, trades lives with Bambi Pitt, a free spirit with 25 pets, a husband, three kids, and household chaos in Connecticut. The Policchios learn to be less anal and Ken Pitt, at least, resolves to adopt some of Caprice’s parenting tips. Bambi never sees eye to eye with Caprice about the pets, most of which Caprice shipped off to storage for the week, but both couples declare they valued the process.
While the episodes are sometimes too rushed and the narrative of transformation too forced, Wife Swap digs into daily domestic stories and permits family diversity. It debunks norms by letting families both respect and critique their own life models. Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, you can experience what it would be like to be them, and then you can try your own domestic ideas out on them. The series lets the particpants make these decisions rather than turning to experts who preach updated versions of 19th-century domestic science (good homes make good families), like the ones we see on most reality home or family improvement shows. Wife Swap is compelling as cultural commentary because it torpedoes the Stepford-esque, nuclear family ideals of functionality. Beyond that potentially positive social value, it provides gripping TV drama by opening a window onto the exquisite, unique wackiness of everyone’s family life.