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Where the grass at least looks greener

September 26, 2004|Meghan Daum | Special to The Times

According to the publicity for "Wife Swap," the new ABC reality show premiering Wednesday and based on the British hit of the same name, "never before has a reality series taken such an honest inside look at the American Family." Though "honesty" is debatable on reality TV -- just how many of those reaction shots actually correspond with what's happening at the moment? -- "Wife Swap" does allow a provocative glimpse inside two U.S. households, as two married women with kids switch places for 10 days.

But what we mostly learn from the first episode of "Wife Swap" is that rich families have granite kitchen countertops and nannies, while less-affluent families favor flower-patterned tablecloths and doormats that read "Home Sweet Home."

Are the two families we meet this week -- the wealthy, ostentatious Spolanskys of Manhattan's Upper East Side and the hardworking Bradleys of rural New Jersey -- happy? What deep, dark secrets lurk inside these two marriages, or between the parents and kids? Who knows? No matter how much "Wife Swap" wants to be about family matters, the show is primarily an opportunity for TV viewers to gape across the class divide. That's because the show brushes past relationship issues -- despite the racy title, these are strictly separate-bedroom arrangements -- and gets right to the heart of the really risque stuff: the spending habits and work-to-leisure-time ratio that separate these two families.

A tale of two lifestyles

In a way, unscripted family-exchange shows such as "Wife Swap" and its even blunter competitor, Fox's "Trading Spouses," are performing the social function of the 19th century novel: Like Dickens novels, these shows provide amusingly exaggerated examples of class differences, put them into conflict, then let us alternately hate and pity each side.

While the expensively coiffed, gym-toned Jodi Spolansky spends an average of $4,000 a week on clothing, we learn, the pretty but careworn Lynn Bradley takes her family clothes-shopping twice a year. The vast and gleaming Spolansky apartment is an homage to the clutter phobias of the upper classes -- despite the presence of three young children, there isn't a toy or errant shoe in sight -- whereas the Bradley home looks like the Lillian Vernon catalog come to life. When it comes to housework, the Spolanskys rely exclusively on professionals, whereas Lynn Bradley proudly takes on all cleaning duties in the house that she and her husband "built themselves." Interestingly, neither man of the house does any housework, suggesting that a free pass from domestic labor for men might be one thing rich and poor have in common.

Still, this is a show about differences, and the smooth-voiced male narrator of "Wife Swap" exuberantly plays up the contrasts between the Spolansky and the Bradley women. Jodi spends at least an hour a day with her personal trainer, then gets her long, blond hair blown out at a fancy salon! Lynn spends six hours a day cutting wood and also drives a school bus!

Actually, despite the working-class patina all their hard work gives them, the Bradleys are probably closer to middle class -- they own a firewood business, and Lynn makes furniture that she sells at craft fairs and art shows. But these class nuances are lost on Jodi Spolansky. The mother of three children and the employer of four nannies, a housekeeper, cook and a chauffeur, Jodi arrives at the Bradley home and promptly freaks out over the presence of a bus and a truck in the driveway. "That's stuff I see in the movies. That's not stuff I've had to deal with," she says. The egregious display of what strikes her as squalor reduces her to tears.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Lynn Bradley gets weepy at the thought of the Spolansky children being raised by the staff. "In this city," she is reassured by a cheery British nanny, "it's not so uncommon for children to spend a lot of time with people who are not their parents." Jodi and Steven eat out six nights a week, we're told. Steven takes his two oldest children to school in the morning, but otherwise doesn't appear to see them at all.

On their first day of "wife work" Jodi attempts to cook breakfast, which one of the teenage Bradley girls rates as a "negative .5" on a scale of 1 to 10. Then, dressed as if she'll be spending a day in Aspen, the slender Manhattanite wrestles in vain with the wood chopper (while her fashionably long wool scarf dangles terrifyingly near the machinery). Meanwhile, Lynn gamely follows the program of Jodi's typical day, a rigorous course of what Jodi calls her "me time" -- a $500 haircut, a session with a personal trainer and a $2,000 shopping excursion.

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