Why are we still persisting with the Wife Swap franchise in 2019, asks Anna Murray.
There's a moment early on during the premiere of Wife Swap New Zealand that beautifully sums up all that I feel about this TV franchise.
As the camera focuses on a family cat watching its human pack her bags to swap lives with another woman for a week, the disdain on the moggie's face is plain to see. I felt I was looking in a mirror. Because if that cat could talk, I'm certain it would be saying, "Really? We're still persisting with Wife Swap in 2019?"
It's a sentence I've used myself a few times ever since TVNZ announced they were screening a local version of the wife-swapping show that first aired in the UK just 16 short years ago.
Between its infamous British and American versions, the Wife Swap franchise has earned a reputation for being toxic and antagonistic. Couples who were polar opposites in the most incendiary of ways, were made to swap partners to ensure each episode had maximum fireworks potential. It was frequently nasty and beyond sexist.
Yet, Wife Swap New Zealand's producers have promised the Kiwi version won't fall into those same traps, despite the fact it's still lumped with that terrible series title.
I believe them, to a point. This is, of course, a bunch of reserved Kiwis we're talking about. There's hardly going to be screaming matches over the dinner table with a complete stranger there.
In fact, the biggest conflict to arise from the first episode comes from a husband being "tricked" into cooking a family meal — and when he can't let this terrible grievance go all week, his new "wife" just laughs it off rather than telling him where he can kindly go jump.
The mix of families in this series also shows a few things have changed since 2003. Wife Swap New Zealand's producers have earnestly tried to get as many family types into the mix as they can, with single mothers, a gay couple and blended families all getting a look in.
The show's format, however, remains the same. For the first half of the week-long experiment, each new spouse is forced to live by the house rules, before she (or he) gets to lay down their own rules for their new family to follow.
Tomorrow night's premiere doesn't stray too far from the classic Wife Swap formula, with two women — Emma, who does her housework from 4.45am each day, and Lei, who wants an "easy life" with a husband who does everything — swapping lives for a week.
Emma's week with Lei's husband Jackie runs relatively smoothly, leaving the other two very spoiled spouses to live together for a week goes about as well as you'd imagine. Lei, at least, knows she lives like a princess in her own home. Emma's husband Paul, however, doesn't demonstrate quite the same awareness.
"Are you joking?" he asks Lei when she mentions her husband does all the cooking for their family. He also shares some views about divisions of labour in the household that probably won't endear him to at least half the general population.
As the experiment peters out to a ho-hum conclusion, the two couples come face-to-face to discuss what they've learned during their week away from their spouse. There are the usual platitudes about learning not to take partners for granted, but it all feels like a forced, token gesture.
For all the talk of a new dawn for Wife Swap, there really isn't anything revelatory to see in its first episode. It's not news, for example, that men do housework. Except to Paul, obviously, who still can't believe Jackie would debase himself by cooking and cleaning for his wife and children.
And even with these traditional gender roles being shaken up on the show, they still manage to portray it in such a way that Emma is referred to as a "crazy" perfectionist, while Jackie looks like an absolute saint, despite the fact they're essentially running their households in the same way.
Upcoming episodes of the series do promise to follow less traditional swaps, so I can only hope there may yet be some interesting insights into what family life means in New Zealand in 2019. Or, at the very least, let's just hope less airtime is given to men who still consider housework to solely be a woman's domain.
• Wife Swap New Zealand premieres tomorrow at 8.30pm on TVNZ 2.