The Ring Cycle

Heartbreak on Fox’s Married by America.

Cold feet, or just cold-hearted?

On Monday night, Married by America (Fox) came down to the brunets and the blonds. For the brunets we got Jill, who once posed for Playboy, and Kevin, whose parents didn’t approve of Jill. For the blonds we had Billie Jeanne, a fragile party girl, and Tony, a prig. Then came America, played here by an undisclosed number of call-in votes; America had performed some hazy, long-ago role in bringing these couples together. But by the show’s end, each couple was at the end of a long white runner, fielding grim stares by family and friends, free—we were told—to tell the wedding officiant, “I do” or “I don’t.”

Thus ended, or almost ended, the two-hour season finale of Married by America, Fox’s authentically melancholy if unsuccessful reality series in which couples were voted into blind engagements. The show premiered on March 3, proving instantly that it was no Joe Millionaire when it placed well behind reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. But Fox put on a brave face and for weeks has followed the travails of 10 new fiances, eliminating—at the recommendation of a trio of entertaining relationship experts—one couple per show.

Since then, we have witnessed scenes usually deemed too painful for television: Jennifer snubbing debonair Xavier for reasons only she knew—and then being thought frigid because of it; and sweetie Denise, pathetically begging Stephen for just a kiss—though his sexual paralysis didn’t get him called brittle.

Eventually Married by America led me to conclude that reality dating on television is enjoyable to watch—the young in all their giddy, presentational splendor—but that reality marriage (even by those same heavily bronzed, post-op young) is sorrowful. You end up watching men and women resign. Sure enough, the anointed couples, five of them at first, played good-to-go when they first met, endeavoring to make good on their pre-engagement claims for the power of love. But soon they were scrutinizing each other for faults, panicking at their implied sexual obligations, and—most surprising of all—losing sight of the prize money that Fox had offered to the couple or couples who married for the cameras.

There were no conniving Richard Hatches on Married by America, not even one strategic couple who seemed prepared to smile through the fiance farce, split the dough, shrug off the bruising charge that they were “in it for the wrong reasons,” and laugh all the way to Quick-E-Dee-Vorce. Instead, two by two, the couples were solemn—grateful, perhaps, for the TV exposure, but otherwise conscientiously concerned about marriage. And so the boppy comic game show became a tragedy.

The girls cried. Cortez just wasn’t into class-clown Matt, though he was probably the producers’ favorite for his actual sense of humor. We lost them straight off. Then stoic Jennifer cried—or almost cried—when charged by the committee of relationship experts with being “brittle.” And finally Denise, rebuffed by Stephen, sobbed when it was announced to all the world that he didn’t find her attractive. (She’s attractive.)

And then, at the finale, there were the brunets and the blonds. Jill, of Playboy, has a whopper of a father, a Long Island blowhard who didn’t want his little bunny married. On visits home, the blowhard seemed to have a gat in the house, and he threatened more than once to blow the whole place sky-high. Kevin, who vacillates, struck him as a weasel—and he all but told him so. Then Kevin’s banal, upright family disliked Jill, too. Her vulgar antecedents couldn’t have helped her, but neither did her background in mainstream porn. Kevin’s brother even declined to be his best man, as they ultimately traded insights:

“It’s just a big decision, buddy.”

“Yes it is, my friend; yes it is. All right, man, well.”

“All right, buddy.”

“All right, man, I love you.”

“I love you.”

“See you, bud.”

“See you.”

Still, in the mix, Fox managed to make Jill and Kevin look compatible—possibly by excising scenes of Jill, ambitious for a career in show business, complaining about Kevin’s lack of direction (for which she later faulted him). Or possibly Fox, to create the illusion of romance, simply relied on the even dispositions of Kevin and Jill. Both seemed willing to hit their marks.

Not so in the love story of the blonds. Between the two, Tony was certifiably the less kind, but how was he—a twerp in sales—to know that he’d end up with the spectacular Billie Jeanne, who, achingly beautiful and apparently orphaned, was ravenous for love? Initially, she styled herself as out for a good time—whooping and talking crudely—but the persona was shallow, and she needed, more profoundly than any reality contestant I know of, to be held, comforted, and cherished like a baby.

Alas, in loco parentis Billie Jeanne had nothing but a distractible friend and a domineering gay man, both of whom, under New Age cover, appeared bent on sabotaging her Cinderella story. But they needn’t have bothered. Tony, whom Billie Jeanne decided she loved at a glance, lacked the worldliness necessary to appreciate her tragic Marilyn-like willingness to give him everything. Indeed, such self-abnegation is not for all tastes. Tony wanted something normal.

“I don’t,” said Jill. “I don’t,” said Tony.

Kevin took the rejection in stride—journey, blah blah, timing—but Billie Jeanne did not. “I have to go,” she whispered at the altar, retreating back down the aisle that she had just triumphantly walked. “What a loser!” her gay friend shouted from the crowd, infuriating her. Still in her gown, she ran to a distant part of the enormous artificial mansion at which the show had been set. She crouched in what seemed like a closet and wailed.

Outside, Tony showed pangs of remorse while his tight-lipped father shook his hand in congratulations. Billie Jeanne is not the kind of girl dads like. She’s too hot and too profligate. The lawn was still decorated by Fox for a bland universal American wedding. The pastor had slunk away.

Inside the Fox mansion, Billie Jeanne sobbed harder and harder, turning away comforters. The breakable girl, her hair loose, seemed now to be wearing no makeup, and she looked like a very little girl. “I’m a joke,” she said, on reality television. It wasn’t the Met, but it was a sad and lovely piece of theater.