Anyone who thinks binge-watching TV is a slovenly activity hasn't realised the calorie-burning potential of a major Seven Year Switch sesh. Rolling your eyes whenever some deluded soul pins the blame for their relationship woes solely on their partner: at least 20 a go, surely. Making a rude wanking gesture and furiously pumping away every time Brad from Australia's series 1 opens his mouth: the ultimate arm workout! The pursing of lips, the furrowing of brows, the inevitable stretching forward to hit "watch next" ad nauseum: the pounds are just melting away.
What is it that's working everyone into a tizzy — and a sweat? Created in the United States and made Daily Mail-level popular with an Australian version, Seven Year Switch is a reality show/social experiment with a bold and, some might say, reckless premise. Four couples — some married, some not, some with kids, some without — try to rehabilitate their rocky relationships by taking a two-week timeout.
During that break, each person is sent to live in a palatial pad with a more like-minded "experimental partner" (from one of the other three couples) who is meant to help them work through their problematic relationship behaviour. Relationship experts pop in for sporadic visits, and, by fortnight's end, the couples must confront whether or not they're ready to make it, or break it.
As last week's UK premiere proved, however, the show seems less intent on patching things together than on manipulating already tense situations for captivated TV audiences. A new twist is that the couples all travel to Thailand for their relationship boot camp experience — because nothing says "I need to knuckle down and work on my communication skills" like a full moon party. A not-so-new twist — and yet, participants who have clearly never watched any version of the show always seem so shocked by the development — is that those "palatial pads" only have room for one bedroom, outfitted with one bed.
The solo bed situation — which will surely be phased out once they get the #MeToo memo — is a cheap trick seemingly designed to either make participants uneasy, stir up dramas with their partners when they get home, or encourage infidelity. In the UK premiere, Tony, an Essex hairdresser has his own solo bed back at his mum's home thanks to his decision to dump longtime partner Gemma before their wedding day, immediately freaks out and threatens to leave the show over it. He tells resident relationship expert Lee Valls — a psychotherapist and life coach who will definitely be played by Gerard Butler in Seven Year Switch: The Movie — that Gemma won't be able to cope with the bed issue. She, however, is perfectly fine with it, having been given sole reign of the mattress by her temporary partner, Simon.
As easy as it is to scoff at cheap ploys like the solo bed, it's flare-ups like Tony's that make the show so compulsively watchable. And if the UK version is anything like its predecessors, it's just the first of many potential minefields awaiting participants. Past "couples" have had to perform intimate massages on one another and exchange rings as "man and wife", only to have compromising photos of their interactions sent to their real partners. It's unfair and manipulative, particularly given the fragile state of these relationships.
And yet, it's also addictively voyeuristic and crucial to the success of the show. Watching at home, viewers can take sides and gleefully rub their palms together in anticipation of the fireworks to come. Without these reality TV plot twists, frankly, the show can feel like an even more extended, drawn-out, less entertaining rehashing of Ross and Rachel's "we were on a break!" debate.
Because of its partner switcheroo element, Seven Year Switch has been compared to Wife Swap, in which mums briefly moved into a new household. But with Wife Swap, there was less at stake. Many of the "wives" seemed more invested in smugly showing off their domestic or parenting skills than desperately trying to keep their family afloat.
But here, divorce, separation, and broken homes are a very real possibility. These domestic situations are so precarious — and, typically, many couples don't survive the experiment — that even the most devoted viewer can't help wishing that the participants had forgone the reality TV stunt and just shelled out for couples therapy instead. In a few cases, including that of current UK participant Nikki, addressing and treating post-natal depression also seems to be overlooked.
Of course, in the real world, couples therapy takes time and a considerable amount of money. Most of the participants complain about the strain childcare and long work hours have put on their relationship, but they're able to call in Nan and book off for an extended holiday because a TV production company is footing the bill. And because they're not paying, they're left to the mercurial whims of reality TV.
If these couples were your mates, you'd encourage them to rip up the contract. You'd take them out for some soul-searching conversations, or push them to get a regular therapist. You'd remind them that a fantasy vacation with a complete stranger is just that: a fantasy.
But they're not your mates. They're randoms with control issues, non-existent sex lives, and children waiting back at home. Shake your head, cringe, feel smug, judge — then stretch forward and hit "watch next" one more time.
Seven Year Switch airs Tuesdays at 9.15pm on Channel 4. Seven Year Switch's Australia and US editions are available to watch on Channel 4 on Demand.