There is perhaps no program in Australian TV history as morally bankrupt as Married at First Sight. It shines a spotlight on some of the most despicable human behaviours without providing any moderating force or moral framework. Viewers are served up a steady stream of abuse, sexism and trauma for entertainment’s sake. We have heard from former cast members that producers use highly questionable methods to elicit the drama, and it is clear, even from a cursory viewing, the cast are not always selected or matched in good faith. Many of them seem to be vulnerable people ill-equipped to deal with the process.
The show also has an uncomfortable whiff of classism about it. We have one class of people (the producers, educated above the national average) pulling the levers to make another class of people (the cast, predominantly from working class backgrounds) appear stupid, mean, deranged, or all three.
And yet, I’m ashamed to say I watched Married at First Sight for several seasons. I watched along with the other 1.7 million Australians who tune in. I watched because I told myself it was just a bit of light fun. Because the cast were willing participants. Because I needed a break after a long day at work and from the misery of the world, and there’s nothing like trashy TV to numb the senses and switch the brain to autopilot. Married at First Sight is basically legal marijuana. You get to escape from reality for an hour, and when you come to, the sharp edges of the world feel a little bit softer.
Then one day it struck me. That feeling I get watching MAFS has echoes of ‘soma’ about it. Made famous by Aldous Huxley in his seminal work A Brave New World, soma was a drug designed to cure unhappiness, but it also had a greater purpose; to control and shape the collective, to insure against any potential uprising. I found myself asking questions better left to philosophy students. What does it say about our current world if we’re all using our precious leisure time to numb ourselves? And while I’m medicating myself with MAFS, what am I missing out on? What could I be doing with those hours of my life? The answer was simple; almost ANYTHING else would be a better use of time. Talking to my husband. Reading a book. In actual fact, staring at the wall would be more effective at quietening the mind.
Like many addictions, cold turkey was the only way. It’s been four weeks now, and I’m growing stronger every day. Where at first I banished myself to the bedroom to read, I can now sit in the living room in the evenings without the urge to flick the TV on. And like the most sanctimonious of reformed smokers, my commitment may be reaching vigilante proportions, because I have the ever-so-sneaking suspicion that most TV is a bit soma-esque.
I’ve realised I can count the number of TV shows that have stayed with me on one hand. They are, in no particular order: the Australian series Love my Way, The Wire, The West Wing and of course, the childhood classic made-for-TV film, The Shiralee. (The new Aussie kids program Bluey is a potential candidate but it’s too early to say for sure.) So, that’s a definite four shows in how many countless hours of mindless viewing? Those odds are embarrassingly stacked against me, and yet I have continued to pursue this form of ‘relaxation’ for most of my life. This makes no sense, obviously.
Of course, I’m not the first to grapple with this dilemma, nor indeed will I be the last. Critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were some of the first to articulate the drivers behind my penchant for wasting hours on mediocre ‘entertainment’, and they did it more than 70 years ago. In the age of Trump and tech addictions and pathological consumption, their work on the ‘culture industry’ is perhaps more relevant than ever.
The premise is simple: popular culture is used to keep the masses passive, content and controlled. If watching MAFS, or something similar, each evening satisfies you just enough to make it bearable to wake up the next day and the day after that and contribute to the capitalist machine, then that’s a job well done. In fact, according to their theory, my MAFS addiction is utterly predictable; the expected result of the hyper-technological, advanced capitalist society we live in.
The more you look for it, the more the culture industry’s sinister power declares itself. It’s there in the bottomless pit of entertainment options we now call ‘TV-on-demand’, a moniker that purports to give us, the consumer, back some agency when it only takes more power from us; forces us to apply increasingly high levels of self-discipline to protect ourselves from mindlessness. And it’s certainly no coincidence that a man who made his name on a rubbish reality TV show became President of the USA.
The unfortunate thing about educating yourself is that somewhere along the line you come to a cross-road where you’re forced to decide – shall I forge a new path? Or continue on, ignoring everything I now know? For me, the natural conclusion of Adorno and Hockheimer’s work is this – can life offer deeper, richer pleasures if one rebuffs the status quo and finds other things to do with one’s leisure time? What does life look like then? The short answer is, I don’t know yet, but I’m sure willing to find out.