The following is a true story: 21-year-old Jennifer is tired of her boyfriend, Chris, 26, treating her like a little sister. He never wants to go out, and he’s too lazy to get a “real” job. Meanwhile, Chris argues that Jen’s youth and sexual inexperience make things “awkward” between them in bed. To help them figure out if their relationship is worth saving, Chris and Jennifer turn to the television dating show Change of Heart. The show’s drill is simple: Couples who have been together for about three to nine months are sent on blind dates with people who, on paper, possess qualities they find lacking in their mates. So Chris is fixed up with Brandy, a slim blonde who doesn’t look like anybody’s little sister, and Jen spends an evening on the beach with Dave, a fun-loving self-starter who works part time for Hugh Hefner. After all four reconvene to describe their encounters, each half of the original couple declares whether they want to “stay together” or have a “change of heart.”
The show’s signature trick is that neither one knows what the other has decided until the moment of truth. That said, if you want to know what happened with Chris and Jen, you will have to read on.
After appearing in late 1998, Change of Heart now has more than 3 million viewers a day, according to its syndicator, Warner Bros. The show reflects how the explosive growth of cable TV has increased the demand for low-budget content, including more and more “real life” programs. Years of watching similar fare have prepared the guests on Change of Heart and other shows to expose their own wounds and relationships.
What Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, finds disturbing about the real-life genre “is the sense that simply being on TV obscures all the humiliation.” The promise in these shows is inherently painful: There will be a loser, and it might be you. The look on a rejected partner’s face at the moment of truth reveals that we are not watching fiction; we are watching lives. And the playing out of these real-life dramas on television may be desensitizing us not just to humiliation, but to drama itself.
When I first started watching Change of Heart, I could hardly wait to find out if the couples would break up. When a couple decided to stay together, I couldn’t help feeling that there is hope for love, after all. But the possibility that things can end badly is, of course, what keeps us watching-in other words, the possibility of getting to see what people look like inside. The problem is that when we do look inside, we don’t see complexity and responsiveness. We don’t get to see people deciding to change or coming to understand each other in anything like the slow, difficult way such insights are gained in life.
There is something unapologetically commercial about the message of Change of Heart–that love may be out there or right here under your nose, but there’s no harm in doing a little comparison shopping. What’s both scary and mesmerizing is that we can recognize in these twentysomethings our deepest fears, heightened by our culture’s tireless obsession with trading up. But what happens to the fish who get thrown back? What if, upon finding Romeo dead beside her, Juliet had simply taken up with a guy who was more, well, alive?
On the upside, I suppose, is the fact that the show carries with it the promise that if you know what you’re looking for, you might actually find it. But what about the part of love and attraction that is a mystery, that transcends body type and hobby preferences? More important, would we know that sort of love if we saw it? The couples on Change of Heart seem to be expected to recover from their relationships in the time it takes the host to thank them for coming. This may be the most serious consequence of these shows–that they reduce the comedies and tragedies of life to nothing more demanding than a consumer product choice.
As for Chris and Jen, I waited for their moment of truth. Chris spoke first. He said he’d learned a valuable lesson on his date with the mature, taller Brandy. “I’m going to give Jen more of what she didn’t have,” he said. He turned his card over. “We’re going to stay together.”
Jen’s youthful face was unreadable, a hint to the seasoned watcher that all was not well. She had, after all, been on a romantic date to Catalina. “Five months is a really long time to wait for a change,” she said. “With Dave, everything I wanted from Chris I got in one date. I’m going to have a change of heart.” Chris hid his disappointment under what came across as a shifty smirk. Not only did Brandy criticize him for biting his fingernails, but Jen chose the Playboy guy, who at this point looked like the cat who ate the canary. And then the host wished everyone well. The credits rolled. Life went on.
From The American Prospect (Dec. 6, 1999). Subscriptions: $29.95/yr. (22 issues) from Box 772, Boston, MA 02102.