The family-focused reality show Wife Swap has returned to television on the Paramount network after a nearly decade long hiatus. Interestingly, since the show first aired on ABC from 2004 to 2010, the world of parental discourse felt a little fraught. Now in the of mommy shaming, lawnmower parenting, gay marriage, and #metoo, the concept weirdly feels more urgent, and less of the voyeurist gimmick it once was. In its premiere episode — which aired last night — the show proves that it’s up to the challenge, offering an eye-opening look at how we raise children in modern America. In fact, it may be one of the best shows for parents, and particularly dads, on TV right now.
The new series stays true to the old formula: The two households swapping parents are stark contrasts of one another. The parent being swapped in must live by their new houses’ rules for a week before being given the chance to implement their own rules for a week. Once the two weeks are up families meet at a kind of Wife Swap demilitarized zone where they critique one another’s homes, kids and spouses, before making a grateful and tear-filled return to their own family.
But the rebooted version adds a twist. In the premiere episode, the show essentially ignores its title, swapping A-type, health-obsessed, intensive home-schooler Virginia Benner with the goofy, chaos-loving, fun-oriented stay-at-home dad Bo McMichaels. But the drama that ensues is pretty boilerplate for Wife Swap.
Perfect mom Virginia turns up her nose at the nugget-heavy diet of the McMichaels family and struggles to cope with wild-children 6-year-old Grayson and 4-year-old Grant. She is doused with water. She is shocked by vegetable oil. She perturbed by the video game trash-talk. All the while, laid-back elementary teacher Christie McMichaels struggles with Virginia’s judgemental attitude.
Meanwhile, happy-go-lucky Bo struggles to understand the adult stoicism of his new charges, 12-year-old Grant, 10-year-old Clark, and 7-year-old Vivienne. He is forced to jog with them, do yard work, eat natural sauerkraut for breakfast and make flaxseed oil smoothies. No one enjoys themselves. Particularly, perpetually absent dad Dwight Benner.
At the turn, both parents assert control over their houses with varying degrees of success. Virginia bans video games, installs a junk food killing diet plan, and tries to educate and exercise the children. Bo becomes a hefty Mary Poppins with a southern drawl, injecting junk food and indoor dodgeball in the Benner household while pulling dad Dwight out of his shell.
That’s all to say that the show hasn’t changed that much. The world has, however. And so have many of the viewers. And that makes a profound difference.
I’ll confess that I was a fan of the original Wife Swap in its heyday. My wife and I had been engaged for a couple of years when we became fans. We were in our 30s, childless and watched the show with the perverse delight of those who’d yet to cross the marriage rubicon. As we observed the hippy mom clash with the all business dad, or the slob mom clash with the neat freak father, my wife and I would discuss what kind of married couple we’d become. The show was a kind of catalog of marital traits we should either keep or reject.
As a parent, the show has new meaning for me. It feels far more connected to my identity and my reality than it ever was. And while I see myself in these people and my kids in their kids, the players also act as archetypes of my community. I know Virginias in my neighborhood and I struggle to understand them. I know Bos, too and am annoyed when their kids are running wild and disruptive in the park.
And not only that, I see these kinds of parents sometimes shame each other from their insular world, neither side hoping to understand the other — each thinking their way is best. That’s very much a part of the modern parenting condition. We are increasingly siloed in our realities and echo chambers and frankly, it’s not great. But, this reality show, at least, on some level, breaks those walls down.
Watching Wife Swap as a modern parent is a revelation because the parents on the show act as a proxy from me, allowing me to experience new ways of parenting that I’m too stubborn to understand on my own. And more than that, I get to see how the children react when parenting styles are changed.
That’s what makes the denouement of the new Wife Swap such a jarring and emotional experience. We see distant Dwight tell fellow father Bo that he doesn’t know how to have fun with his kids or connect with his wife, sheepishly wiping away tears. We hear mom Christie talk about food insecurity and the economic necessity of eating cheap processed food. And we are blown away to learn that the strict diet of the Benners is inspired by the fact that A-type Mom Virginia donated a kidney to her youngest son who was dying of kidney failure.
It’s a deep hit of empathy that we desperately need. Yes, the confrontation is played for drama, but the relief comes is watching parents from different backgrounds seeing and understanding one another. The first episode ends with a hug as one family seeks to find closeness and the other looks to get healthy. It’s a satisfying conclusion.
Will it always be thus as the New Wife Swap rolls out more episodes? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter to me. Wife Swap offers parents a chance to try and understand who we are, and if there is any chance that it can help us come together, I’m there for it. You should be too.