Riding Coattails: Wife Swap- The Real Guilty Pleasure


What do Wife Swap, my ex-boyfriend from college, and gooey cupcakes all have in common? Well, try as I might to get away from all three, they keep popping up in my life. OK, maybe I could be making more of a concentrated effort to avoid the first and third items on the list, but the second thing is the result of a huge pool of mutual friends who keep getting married and throwing parties and stuff. Anyway, nevermind about him. And nevermind that I just baked four dozen chocolate cupcakes with every intention of freezing them and bringing them to holiday parties in the coming weeks. What’s this in the fridge? A vat of heavenly homemade fudge frosting? How did this get here? Did the maintenance guy leave this by accident when he installed my carbon monoxide detector this week? Oh, nevermind already.

Although Desperate Housewives is currently being touted as the latest guilty pleasure on TV, I think that label is inaccurate. I find the overall quality of the show to be too good to induce guilt when I watch it. The story, the acting, and the whole controversy surrounding the authenticity of Nicollette Sheridan’s dramatically arched eyebrows had me at hello. In order for a show to fall under the guilty pleasure category, the premise must exploit someone (children, the morbidly obese, ignorant family members, adults under 3’6″, etc.) and employ cheap gimmicks to keep it going, such as humiliating competitions, extreme verbal abuse, and unreasonable house rules that make the participants cry or eat mung beans (sometimes at the same time). I’m thinking Average Joe, The Biggest Loser, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, The Littlest Groom to name a few shows that have personally induced large amounts of both pleasure and guilt.

Wife Swap also falls into this category. But while I have been able to restrain myself from tuning into The Biggest Loser after watching the premier (and subsequently vomiting, though not in an inspired effort to lose weight), I find myself looking forward to Wife Swap and taping it when I have prior commitments on Wednesday night.

So what drives this fierce fascination? It probably has something to do with my interest in how families operate in general. My mother is one of ten children and I am one of four, so from an early age, I saw that family dynamics were not only incredibly complicated, but central to shaping who and what a person becomes later in life. While I’ve spent a lot of time observing the interactions in my own family and now with my in-laws, I crave glimpses into the kitchens and living rooms of families that function very differently from my own. I love getting the chance to meet my friends’ parents and siblings, as a five-minute conversation with one of these people tends to reveal more than I would glean from a month’s worth of overly honest Friday happy hours with the friends in question.

Aside from my familial voyeurism, I enjoy Wife Swap because it does not contain quite as high a sleaze factor as some of the other shows out there. True, people get their feelings hurt and it probably messes with the minds of the children participating in the show, but there doesn’t seem to be any more permanent damage taking place than there already was in the first place. And in some cases, the kids and parents walk away with a better situation than when they started.

Such was the result this week when a buttoned-up psychoreligious mom from South Carolina was shipped off to Texas to live with a pierced, punked out family in Texas. While the punk-rock mama butted heads with the complete a-hole husband in South Carolina, Mrs. Bible Thumper actually loosened up in Texas and even donned some fish nets and jammed with the kids in their garage band. The message of “free your mind and your ass will follow” was a bit over-the-top in its execution, yet remains one that I value and appreciate, even when it’s spoon-fed to me on prime time television. And the Texas mother came to the stunning realization that maybe it’s not the best idea in the world to let a sixteen-year-old boy homeschool himself. Gee, really?

Another reason that I probably dig on this show more than most is that I’ve developed quite a cabinet full of family issues of my own. Excuse the pun, but I now see that these problems are all relative. Thanks to Wife Swap, I am now keenly aware of how well I had it growing up with a set of slightly liberal parents who believed in breastfeeding but not spanking. When I was bad, I got a time-out rather than an assignment of copying passages of the Bible. My parents were neither drunks nor drill sergeants. They encouraged me to do well in school and my outside interests but didn’t insist that I act as a vicarious representative for what could have been if only they’d applied themselves more in school and waited until they were of legal drinking age to get married. And while they weren’t perfect, they weren’t nearly as offensive as the parents who walk onto Wife Swap every week. So when it comes down to it, I continue to watch this show because it’s therapeutic, a beautiful reminder that even though I have a few causes for complaint, my own parents are pretty damn cool after all.

And my mother never did approve of my college boyfriend. Turns out she was right about him. And maybe one or two other things.