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The absurd pleasures and pain of Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars

The cast of Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars, season two. (Photo by Kelsey McNeal/WE tv)

Of WE tv’s two Friday night relationship-focused series, the one that actually has its cast members have sex on a stage in front of an audience is not the sensational, entertaining one. No, Sex Box is boring, a dull talk show pretending to be something interesting. Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars is where the the entertainment is, and oh, is it wonderful–and wondrously bad.

The show was born as a spin-off of Bridezillas, channeling its cast members into marriage counseling. Once that series ended, it began casting couples famous from reality television, a smart pivot because it broadened the show’s appeal outside of the network’s typical audience.

What’s most remarkable about the show is how it manages to be total shlock, a publicity and cash-generating vehicle for its stars that has visibly suspicious production choices, yet also find real problems and apparently authentic moments in its crass attempts at manipulating its participants and viewers.

Did I mention that it is usually fun, to an absurd degree?

The premise is that these couples are seeking some kind of couples counseling, but it is very clear that they are mostly seeking more camera time. Each couple is reduced to a single, easy to articulate problem, which is the start of the show’s oversimplification and sensationalization. Their rooms in the Bachelor-esque mansion are decorated to illustrate that problem. The Hillsvillains Heidi and Spencer, for example, are supposedly there because Heidi wants a baby and Spencer doesn’t, so their room’s design is that of a nursery.

There is no subtlety here, and there is especially none in the exercises run by the boot camp’s instructors, married couple Jim and Elizabeth Carroll, who run an actual version of this in real life. (There are two other counselors, but they might as well be cardboard cutouts for the show’s purpose.) In each episode, Jim and Elizabeth present some kind of absurd task to the couples. For example, one person is placed in the middle of a staged car wreck and pretends to be dead so their partner can talk to them.

The challenges are metaphors for their relationships, and the entertainment and metaphors can be paper-thin or exceptionally revealing. In one episode this season, each member of a couple had to make a choice between two future paths, roughly equivalent to a selfish one and a selfless one, represented by two doors. They did this independent of one another, and it turned out that the selfless paths connected by a boardwalk, while the selfish paths led to a plank over water.

It made a highly visual point that also seemed to really affect the couples. Perhaps the most devastating moment came from Survivor winner Tyson and his Survivor Blood vs Water partner Rachel, who, the show’s narrative goes, wants to get married while Tyson just wants to make jokes. She chose the path that involved marriage even without Tyson, while he chose the path that represented keeping things the same, staying with Rachel but not getting married. She was stunned; he painfully tried to make his choice better by insisting he’d jump in the water for her, which came across as desperate, manipulative, and sad. Unless they took acting lessons, the exercise had a profound impact on them.

Audio problems at boot camp

The challenges come with lectures from Jim and Elizabeth on the lessons it has for their relationships. At least, that’s what the show would have us believe.

The most problematic part of the show is how often they talk in dubbed-in voiceovers added in post-production. I’m not just talking about things like when the cast is sitting around and we hear one of their voices, as if over a loudspeaker, beckoning the cast to their next challenge. It’s also things they say directly to the cast members’ faces that are clearly and decidedly not actually being spoken in the moment. For example: “Go ahead and sit down, Spencer. If you don’t take this program seriously, you’re not going to make it.”

That these are being recorded later is so barely concealed–the volume and tone of their voices change; the lines sound like they’re being recited; and there’s some awkward footage like of the back of their head, which is the big giveaway–that  I wonder why the producers even bother to hide it. I also wonder what really happened at boot camp. Maybe they deliver a tremendous amount of highly complex, useful information that takes too much time to include in an episode, so it needs to be summarized in post. Maybe not.

This isn’t new to this show, and a lot of series do this, because ethics get tied up and thrown in the trunk when a network needs a hyper-clear narrative for fear of losing a viewer. What really bothers me about it on Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars, though, is that the show is purporting to be some form of therapy. A lot of what they say is condescending and because it’s delivered in post, there’s no real reaction from the cast, which is weird and unfair.

In addition, their interviews come across as recited, not spoken, and what they’re saying is so oversimplified that it generates eye rolls, not understanding. It’s disappointing because sometimes Jim and Elizabeth say things–with their mouths moving on camera!–that are really great and interesting. It’s especially interesting when they disagree, though that’s rare.

All together, much of their on-screen presence feels like plot added after the fact. Just watch as they stand back uncomfortably during a fight and then say what sound like scripted lines later to justify their lack of intervention:

Considering how much genuine drama the show finds, however, I’m surprised it needs to layer this artificiality overtop. It’s like taking a perfectly good cookie and covering it with paint. This season has given us the joy of seeing The Hills villains be annoyed by a Real Housewives cast member, a cast member who threw her leg in a restaurant for attention and then got upset when her husband did the same thing during a challenge that involved them both receiving electrical shocks.

Yes, this is the kind of reality series that traffics heavily in the particular brand of schadenfreude that involves reality TV villains getting punished. Since they’ve signed up for less than two weeks of work that involves hanging out in a mansion and doing silly challenges, it seems relatively harmless.

They do get invested, though. One narrative through-line has been Aviva Drescher and her husband, Reid, half-assing all the challenges. I don’t blame Aviva for not engaging with the process or not opening up in front of this D-list cast. And Natalie’s annoyance at Aviva for that almost seemed to be irritation at her own willingness to participate, to humiliate herself for attention.

When boot camp starts getting real

Marriage Boot Camp tends to avoid dumb and easy reality TV drama, though last week’s drunken club visit seemed designed to inflame the embers created by living in close quarters with other type-A attention-seekers.

While the couples’ reasons for being on the show generally seem manufactured and blown out of proportion, they are are still grounded in enough reality that they touch nerves. When they’re blindsided by actual revelation, that’s when the real drama occurs. Recently, we had Spencer admit during a lie detector test that he doesn’t like himself, which prompted Tyson to tearfully come to Spencer’s defense, an act that left Heidi in tears.

A previous exercise had the cast talk about something from their past–Tyson, for example, told a story about a group of kids threatening to sodomize him with an object–and then look at photos of themselves as kids “so they can work through this trauma.” Please! You don’t work through trauma in such a simplistic way, which may explain why Aviva pretty much refused to discuss losing her leg.

Is this substantive therapy? No. Does it raise questions? Absolutely. It’s impossible to deny that this and other exercises unearth real emotion and real problems, and that’s why the show really works. Without that, the seesaw would stay on the artificial side. As it is, the show kind of switches rapidly between authentic and artificial, as illustrated by this montage of season-two highlights.

The result is a show that wades around in relationship issues, occasionally dives deep, and frequently comes up for air. It’s a winning combination, which is why season three is coming soon.

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