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Where the grass at least looks greener

Special to The Times

According to the publicity for “Wife Swap,” the new ABC reality show premiering Wednesday and based on the British hit of the same name, “never before has a reality series taken such an honest inside look at the American Family.” Though “honesty” is debatable on reality TV -- just how many of those reaction shots actually correspond with what’s happening at the moment? -- “Wife Swap” does allow a provocative glimpse inside two U.S. households, as two married women with kids switch places for 10 days.

But what we mostly learn from the first episode of “Wife Swap” is that rich families have granite kitchen countertops and nannies, while less-affluent families favor flower-patterned tablecloths and doormats that read “Home Sweet Home.”

Are the two families we meet this week -- the wealthy, ostentatious Spolanskys of Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the hardworking Bradleys of rural New Jersey -- happy? What deep, dark secrets lurk inside these two marriages, or between the parents and kids? Who knows? No matter how much “Wife Swap” wants to be about family matters, the show is primarily an opportunity for TV viewers to gape across the class divide. That’s because the show brushes past relationship issues -- despite the racy title, these are strictly separate-bedroom arrangements -- and gets right to the heart of the really risque stuff: the spending habits and work-to-leisure-time ratio that separate these two families.

A tale of two lifestyles

In a way, unscripted family-exchange shows such as “Wife Swap” and its even blunter competitor, Fox’s “Trading Spouses,” are performing the social function of the 19th century novel: Like Dickens novels, these shows provide amusingly exaggerated examples of class differences, put them into conflict, then let us alternately hate and pity each side.

While the expensively coiffed, gym-toned Jodi Spolansky spends an average of $4,000 a week on clothing, we learn, the pretty but careworn Lynn Bradley takes her family clothes-shopping twice a year. The vast and gleaming Spolansky apartment is an homage to the clutter phobias of the upper classes -- despite the presence of three young children, there isn’t a toy or errant shoe in sight -- whereas the Bradley home looks like the Lillian Vernon catalog come to life. When it comes to housework, the Spolanskys rely exclusively on professionals, whereas Lynn Bradley proudly takes on all cleaning duties in the house that she and her husband “built themselves.” Interestingly, neither man of the house does any housework, suggesting that a free pass from domestic labor for men might be one thing rich and poor have in common.

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Still, this is a show about differences, and the smooth-voiced male narrator of “Wife Swap” exuberantly plays up the contrasts between the Spolansky and the Bradley women. Jodi spends at least an hour a day with her personal trainer, then gets her long, blond hair blown out at a fancy salon! Lynn spends six hours a day cutting wood and also drives a school bus!

Actually, despite the working-class patina all their hard work gives them, the Bradleys are probably closer to middle class -- they own a firewood business, and Lynn makes furniture that she sells at craft fairs and art shows. But these class nuances are lost on Jodi Spolansky. The mother of three children and the employer of four nannies, a housekeeper, cook and a chauffeur, Jodi arrives at the Bradley home and promptly freaks out over the presence of a bus and a truck in the driveway. “That’s stuff I see in the movies. That’s not stuff I’ve had to deal with,” she says. The egregious display of what strikes her as squalor reduces her to tears.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Lynn Bradley gets weepy at the thought of the Spolansky children being raised by the staff. “In this city,” she is reassured by a cheery British nanny, “it’s not so uncommon for children to spend a lot of time with people who are not their parents.” Jodi and Steven eat out six nights a week, we’re told. Steven takes his two oldest children to school in the morning, but otherwise doesn’t appear to see them at all.

On their first day of “wife work” Jodi attempts to cook breakfast, which one of the teenage Bradley girls rates as a “negative .5" on a scale of 1 to 10. Then, dressed as if she’ll be spending a day in Aspen, the slender Manhattanite wrestles in vain with the wood chopper (while her fashionably long wool scarf dangles terrifyingly near the machinery). Meanwhile, Lynn gamely follows the program of Jodi’s typical day, a rigorous course of what Jodi calls her “me time” -- a $500 haircut, a session with a personal trainer and a $2,000 shopping excursion.

Somehow, despite the expectation that “Wife Swap” will be one of those shows that thrives on punishing the wealthy for their lack of morals while simultaneously ridiculing the working class for their lack of ambition, the Spolansky-Bradley swap, at least, manages to be not at all depressing. This is partly because of the show’s fast pace. Unlike the interminable episodes of “Trading Spouses,” which stretched the families’ one-week ordeal over multiple broadcasts, “Wife Swap” packs each two-week experiment into an hour-long segment, sparing us rehashed arguments over the same issue and keeping diary-cam confessionals to a minimum.

More important, though, “Wife Swap” isn’t offering its participants any cash for their trouble. The families on “Trading Spouses” get $50,000 each, which, given the often enormous financial disparities between them, lent an awkward undercurrent to the whole project.

Relationship rehab

For the Spolanskys and the Bradleys, the stakes are personal. Lynn Bradley wants her husband, Brad (yes, his name is Brad Bradley), to appreciate the work she does. Steven Spolansky laments that Jodi “really is driven but right now the only thing she’s driven by is a chauffer.”

Because of this apparent willingness to change, “Wife Swap” delivers what few reality shows do: a genuinely moving conclusion. Jodi, who discovers the joys of baking (probably inedible) cookies with the Bradley girls, admits that she’s missing out on something by not spending time with her kids. Brad’s relationship with Jodi evolves from nearly violent antagonism (“I’ve never been spoken to like that in my life,” a visibly shaking Jodi says as she retreats to the porch at one point) to a kind of friendship and respect. Brad seems to go from inarticulate couch potato to something resembling a sensitive guy. When he says, through tears, that the 10 days he spent without his wife are 10 days that, at the end of his life, he’ll regret that he can never have back, you almost want to cry too.

But despite the unexpected outbreak of apparent personal transformation, watching reality TV is generally an exercise in gawking at other people’s bad manners, bad parenting and, worst of all, bad taste -- and in figuring out all those gradations of class differences that, as Americans, we’re supposed to pretend don’t exist -- and “Wife Swap” is no exception. We do not, after all, tune into shows such as “Wife Swap” or “Trading Spouses” because we care about how strangers will get along. We watch because one person eats sushi and the other eats fried catfish. We want to see them fight it out like Roman gladiators.

The show’s producers attempt to avoid accusations of racism or classism by the breeziness with which they describe the subjects: they’re from “different walks of life,” a term that has to be the dodge of the century. Just as some people are a little more equal than others, some walks of life are a little more pedestrian than others.

In the end, it’s not so much the Bradleys we’re watching but their Wal-Mart-chic kitchen. We’re less interested in the Spolanskys in and of themselves than in the contents of their gargantuan closets.

Ah, but there’s the rub. It’s a disheartening thought, but perhaps the connection we assume between class and character, the whole “you are your car” phenomenon, is the one aspect of American culture that reality TV understands better than Karl Marx and InStyle magazine combined. In fact, no one seems to buy into his or her own stereotype more than the stars of these shows themselves. From Brad Bradley’s slack-jawed demeanor to Steven Spolansky’s assertion that Lynn’s desire to spend more than one hour a day with the children is a result of her “coming from hillbilly land,” the people on “Wife Swap” seem to have learned more about themselves from reality television than from reality itself. Jodi, especially, with her infantile coquettishness, has clearly been taking notes from the Paris Hilton handbook. “This is the grossest thing I’ve ever had to do,” this mother of three says of cleaning a toilet. You sense she believes that saying things like that makes her truly upper class.

In the end, it’s Lynn Bradley who, by being the most real, lifts the show up by dissenting from the usual reality TV values. She is not, it turns out, jealous of Jodi’s pampered life. She just wants to go home.

Taken to dinner with Steven’s friends, an event that looks more like a board meeting than a night out, Lynn is asked if she’d want to transplant her family into Steven’s family’s lifestyle -- if she’d want to shop where Jodi shops and eat out six nights a week. We’re supposed to think “Who wouldn’t?” With the calm, incredulous expression she wears throughout most of the episode, Lynn simply shakes her head no.

Some people just don’t have what it takes to make it on reality TV.


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