Given the hullabaloo over Fox scheduling its family-swapping series to preempt ABC’s conceptual twin “Wife Swap,” the similarities between the two programs certainly sound striking — down to each premiere planting a wealthy, snooty, kid-ignoring blond in a lower-income home. What’s interesting, though, is how different the execution feels, with Fox and producer Rocket Science succumbing to their usual excesses, siphoning most of the sweetness out in order to alternate between broad comedy and horror show, either “My Big Fat Obnoxious New Mommy” or “When Families Attack.”
Once again, Fox reality programming chief Mike Darnell’s penchant for big ideas gets muddled from drawing board to screen, and where the ABC show — while far from perfect — comes across as an experiment with strictly defined rules, Fox delivers a seat-of-the-pants exercise that throws in an unnecessary twist.
In this case, each of the two “new moms” is allowed to decide how her adopted family will spend $50,000 — at best a distraction, though the producers allocate considerable time to trying to milk drama from it.
It’s difficult, in fact, to think of a more smarmy outfit around than the Rocket Science gang, whose productions, from “Temptation Island” to “Fiance,” drip with condescension and invariably are musically scored like a slasher movie and “The Munsters” — somehow, all in the same hour.
The opening two-part swap (which repeats Monday, in advance of next week’s wrap-up) features Tammy, the wife of a plastic surgeon, moving in with a financially challenged African-American family, where mother Mela is 29 years old and has kids age 11, 12 and 13.
Like many who enter the “reality” grinder, Tammy is painted as a self-absorbed bitch, one who assumes “most everybody else has a life like mine” and lounges on the couch glaring at her temporary husband, idly saying, “I’m not in the mood to cook lunch.”
By contrast, Mela makes like Dorothy in Oz upon encountering Tammy’s brood, playing with the kids, bonding with the grandmother who raises them and exhibiting saucer-sized eyes entering their vacation lake house. OK, we get it, different sides of the tracks; now what’s the point?
With “Wife Swap,” there actually is one, however flimsy, as it explores sociological differences and varying approaches to raising kids. In a perverse way, then, “Trading Spouses’ ” modest but respectable opening rating may bode well for the ABC show, which arrives in the fall and benefits from a more neatly constructed premise.
By contrast, “Trading Spouses” is as cynical as its name — designed to stoke conflict and elicit well-orchestrated feelings of contempt or bemusement toward the key “characters.” The program also employs what’s become a Fox “reality” formula, essentially previewing the show’s entire run within the first two minutes and then endlessly recapping, which doesn’t quite obscure how little actually transpires in the first episode.
Both shows, it should be noted, are morally questionable, subjecting minor children to a confusing experiment that replaces their mother with someone else. And while everyone, even kids, covet 15 minutes of fame, the fact that parents willingly sign up to risk being depicted badly — down to Tammy carping at Mela’s daughter about her weight — doesn’t absolve either broadcaster from complicity in the process.
Fox has enjoyed its share of unscripted hits, and with most of the summer lineup tanking ratings-wise, such fare doubtless will be even more prevalent come fall. Still, the network’s get-there-first strategy with “Spouses” is less about planting a flag on the moon than simply mooning the competition, and it’s hard to see what good that does anybody.