‘Wife Swap’: Voyeurism with a message (sometimes)


“Wife Swap” (ABC, 8 p.m. Friday) relies on a belief in the power of domestic diplomacy, an acknowledgment on the part of parents committed to their household customs that there may in fact be other options and that dialogue is better than resistance.

But like all negotiations between sovereign nations with competing ideals, goodwill is not always the prime motivator or the most effective one.

Take Myra Chi, martial arts mini-magnate, who on last week’s “Wife Swap” embedded with the Edwards family, which runs a community theater group on a shoestring and which probably should have applied to be on “Clean House” too. After Myra pokes around in the Edwardses’ refrigerator, she immediately runs to the sink and vomits.


Later, confronted with the stubbornness and lethargy of Phil, the Edwards paterfamilias, she boils over. “You are a failure, you lousy fat pig!” she tells him. “You’re 44 years old, you don’t own a home, you don’t have a car!”

Hopefully Phil would receive consolation from the fact that, while he is being chewed out by Myra, his wife, Jackie, otherwise happy-go-lucky and uncontrolling, is informing Myra’s husband, Charles, of his shortcomings as well. “Do you ever once give your children what they need?” she asks, screaming, purging. “They get food, and they get money thrown at them. Where is the love?”

Choosing to participate in “Wife Swap” must, initially, be rooted in deep narcissism, a faith that one’s family strategy is the ideal one and a need to proselytize. Beneath that hubris, though, must reside a layer of doubt -- why else would you serve your family up for a filleting otherwise, if not to assuage deep-seated concerns?

Shrewdly, “Wife Swap” picks no favorites, preaches no strategies. Unlike most shows about the home, it is not proscriptive, believing more in the powers of moderation and in picking the most useful bits from several approaches -- a sort of home-life polytheism -- than in any dogma. Here, even though families are paired because of opposing traits -- working moms versus homemakers, rowdy kids versus well-trained bots, free spirits versus neat freaks -- any family can be sensible, and in turn, all families are.

The show’s subtext, generally unspoken, is about transmission -- how we parent will affect how our children will eventually do the job and is reflective of how it was done to us. Our behavior is molded by accreted calluses and scars.

But given its unspoken pessimism about dysfunction across generations, “Wife Swap” believes that people can be malleable, that who you have been need not dictate who you become. It turns out that Charles, the work-focused martial arts instructor, is capable of dressing up like a pirate and encouraging his son’s fertile imagination and that Phil is capable of putting his acting skills to work helping corporations train workers in public speaking. Call it “Extreme Makeover: Husband Edition.”

Except when it’s not. This week, for its 100th swap, two families that have already participated in the show were chosen by fan vote to have another go, presumably for reasons of entertainment, not charity -- after all, if last time was such a success, why would they need to try again?

The Heene family, with its three rowdy boys, is anchored by father Richard, whose anger arrives in sudden bolts between his fringe science projects. The Silvers, who have two quirky, artistically inclined sons, revolve around the mother, Sheree, who is a psychic and who initially fails to impress Richard. “Sheree’s like a clogged drain, OK? Things aren’t happening,” he barks. “I’ll bet you the heaviest thing she lifts is the fork to her mouth.”

But deep down, these two are more alike than they pretend. It’s their spouses who struggle most. Richard’s wife, Mayumi, finding Sheree’s “househusband,” Sam Castiglia,to be “a very feminine husband” and finds it tough to even tolerate the quirks of the Silver children, who are so unlike her own, seeming less like a parent than a conspirator against the alien family. So much for learning.

At the end of each episode of “Wife Swap,” the reunited couples face off to discuss the experience, encounters that over the years have ranged from catharsis to outright hostility. This week, in a gratuitous twist, the families’ children face off as well. But distressingly, it’s clear they haven’t learned a thing.