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    ‘Married at First Sight’ and the power of marriage

    Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein (the show’s spiritual advisor) and Dr. Logan Levkoff (left), a sexologist,  in FYI's “Married at First Sight.”
    Karolina Wojtasik
    Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein (the show’s spiritual advisor) and Dr. Logan Levkoff (left), a sexologist, in FYI's “Married at First Sight.”

    Grab the smelling salts, TV viewers! The latest reality series to make people apoplectic is called “Married at First Sight,” and it’s just what the title suggests: Three sets of strangers allow a team of experts to arrange them into marriages, for real and possibly forever.

    In Monday’s premiere, the brides and grooms prepared for their blind weddings. In future episodes, they’ll honeymoon and cohabitate for a month. In the end, they’ll be given the option: Stay together or get divorced.

    Yes, this is mostly a grenade thrown into the pool of summer TV, to call attention to the fledging FYI Network, formerly The Biography Channel. But in an odd way, it’s also a cause for traditionalists to cheer — another sign of how much our culture still values the institution of marriage.


    That’s the subtext of wedding-planning excess. (It’s your Big Day for a reason.) It’s been the point of the marriage equality fight, as activists insisted that sterile “civil unions” were no substitute for the real thing.

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    And it’s a staple of pop culture, where marriage is still the ideal; one college student I know confessed to tears of joy at a recent Beyonce/Jay-Z concert, because she was so moved by home movies of a power couple in love. How to make a marriage last is the subtext of half of the sitcoms that have ever been on TV. In “Married,” a new one premiering next week on FX, the scenarios earn a “Mature Adults” warning, but the formula is the same: Henpecked husband banters with put-upon wife, yet they manage to stick it out.

    “Married at First Sight” contributes something similar to the dating-show genre: An effort to suss out the formula for longevity. Most matchmaking shows place their singles in petri dishes full of rose petals, then ask them to perform dramatic mating dances that have little to do with real relationships.

    But on “Married at First Sight,” the four experts — a psychologist, a sociologist, a sexologist, and a spiritual adviser (he’s the Humanist chaplain at Harvard) — set up matches based on detailed surveys and long conversations with the would-be brides and grooms.

    It’s a melancholy process, actually. The contestants have their quirks (one is a professional wrestler whose in-the-ring partner acts like a put-upon wife), but almost all of them have needs that are aching to be filled. They talk about deceased dads, sick moms, estranged families, broken homes. The experts set out to fit them together, like puzzle pieces.


    Once the matches are made, the brides and grooms go off to tell their friends, who, for the most part, don’t seem fazed. That might have to do with the escape hatch of divorce, but it might be because we’re already accustomed to matchmaking via algorithm. A survey released last fall by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project found that one in 10 Americans has used an online dating site or a dating mobile app, ceding the work to computer programs or carefully vetted online profiles.

    Besides, what makes “Married at First Sight” intriguing isn’t the match-ups so much as the power of law. These unions have a better chance of lasting, the experts suggest, because they aren’t just dates or glorious weekends of discovery; they’re binding relationships, already destined to have ups and downs, that demand a different level of commitment.

    This is reality TV, so the premise only goes so far. Most of us don’t spend our first weeks of marriage surrounded by cameras and boom mics (unless we’re C-list celebrities, in which case, anything goes). The “Married at First Sight” candiate pool is rather self-selected. One of the brides already appeared on “The Bachelor” and “Bachelor Pad.”

    On the other hand, her new husband’s equal willingness to try something even crazier implies a certain kind of compatibility: Equal amounts of narcissism, or desperation, or sense of adventure, or dark sense of humor.

    In a weird way, it’s aspirational, and the online dating masses seem to be the target audience. When I watched the premiere this week, the first ad I saw was for the dating site eHarmony.


    The second was for an online legal service. There’s hope, and there’s also reality.

    Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.