So there I was — this is a couple months ago — minding my own business when I receive a very vague message asking me if I’d be willing to appear as a movie critic in a documentary. Well, I’ve done this sort of thing in the past for DVD extras, so it’s not like I’m camera-shy or anything, but this query was so unclear as to the purpose of the whole thing that I was a little wary of the enterprise. All I knew was that I was going to watch a documentary and then discuss it. Oh, and could I snare some other critics who’d also be willing to participate?
That last question was the kicker. I couldn’t in all good conscience drag someone else — no, not even Justin Souther — into this without a little more information. Also, as I pointed out to my contact, what exactly were they wanting? They did realize, I noted, that there was no guarantee I — or we — would like the film in question, and that it might be wiser to let us see the thing before making a decision on whether or not they wanted to go this route. But the whole thing came back to the one basic question of what exactly all this was in the service of. After much hemming and hawing, my contact finally explained that this was an episode of Wife Swap. Even now, I’m not sure whether the secrecy in this matter stemmed from the show’s basic policy, or the prospect of people metaphorically slamming the door on them upon learning that it was “reality TV.”
What they did not know — and couldn’t know — was that this was perhaps the one such show they could have named that I’d actually seen — and more than once. I should explain. I don’t really watch television in the general sense. It’s pretty much strictly DVDs or Turner Classic Movies for me with the occasional side-trip to the Fox Movie Channel. However, my wife tends to watch the news and just leaves the TV on that channel through Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. OK, the former is pretty grim, but the latter is occasionally worth at least half watching. The point, however, is that she’ll leave the room during or after Jeopardy and the TV is still on, leaving me to the mercy of what’s on next.
The thing is I’m usually doing something else during this, so unless whatever comes on annoys me in some significant way (like by being Dancing with the Stars), inertia takes hold and I’ll leave it alone. Enter Wife Swap, which used to be on Monday, at which time I’m tussling with the movie listings. Not only did it not annoy me, it occasionally fascinated me in some perverse way. Though the title sounds pretty rooty-tooty, the show itself isn’t so much so.
The premise mostly revolves around the concept of two families who trade off wives (not conjugally) for a couple of weeks, and it works on the notion of what happens when the most extremely different types of people are swapped out. In other words, wouldn’t it be a hoot if you sent a neat freak into a family of uber-slobs, or a nice Christian lady into a family of pagans, and, of course, vice-versa? There’s an effort to make all this socially relevant by having life lessons about striking a balance being learned by all concerned, but it’s the oil and water part that gives the show its appeal. And after after all, only a couple letters separate appealing from appalling. Wife Swap is a little bit of both with something of the effect of being unable not to read the tabloid headlines in the checkout line at the grocery store.
As a kind of passive guilty pleasure, Wife Swap held just the right level of appeal to make me say yes. So I immediately called Souther and asked, “Hey, you wanna be on Wife Swap?” He pointed out that he didn’t have a wife. I suggested we could rent one. Then I explained the project to him. And like any semi-rational human being he saw the brilliance of the idea. In short, “Who wouldn’t want to be able to say he was on Wife Swap?” Who indeed? Certainly not Bold Life movie critic Marcianne Miller, since she quickly threw in her lot with us for this shining moment of TV immortality.
So now we had our panel of critics, but how we fit into this was still a little vague — and remained so even after we’d been sent copies of the film we were supposed to watch, and even after we’d watched it. (I’ll say no more about the film itself. You can watch the show to find out.) In fact, we didn’t have our full instructions till the event proper, which was shot in a meeting room at the Hampton Inn near Pisgah Forest one Friday evening.
The plan was that Justin and I would meet up with Marcianne and the film crew there — something that thanks to the Google driving directions Justin came up with started things off on just the wrong foot. “We just passed the entrance to Pisgah Forest. I would imagine the hotel is near that,” I said. “The instructions say it’s the other side of Brevard,” Justin argued. Fine. So we ended up in a residential neighborhood that had no relation to anything. Fortunately, a cellphone call netted us new directions that took us, yes, back to the entrance to Pisgah Forest and the proceedings were soon underway.
The idea was simple. The surrogate wife of the fortnight had ended up playing this role with a young filmmaker from Etowah and wanted input from people who knew something about movies on her substitute husband’s film—some outside opinion on the actual merit of his work to put into perspective whether or not the amount of time and effort he was putting into his movie was really worth it. We would watch the movie, then tell her what we thought, and then discuss it with the filmmaker himself.
Of course, we weren’t really going to watch the film, since we’d already done that, but we would pretend to watch it for purposes of the show. This is what we call suspension of disbelief—and possibly acting. In any case, something went wrong with the first take, so we did this twice. I, for one, was relieved, feeling I hadn’t quite been in character the first round, and was glad of the chance to refine my performance with thoughtful looks and occasional beard-stroking. I am certain it was a vast improvement in my impersonation of Ken Hanke. On the othe hand, Justin has remarked that he spent most of his time trying not to look at the camera. Marcianne took notes. Well, anyway, she wrote something. So there you have the picture — me stroking my beard, Justin not looking at the camera, and Marcianne writing. It was all very dramatic, I assure you.
That was probably the highpoint of the acting involved, too, since the rest of it simply consisted of us talking about the movie in a completely unscripted manner. It was a bit like being in a John Cassavetes picture where you’re given basic instructions on the set-up and then left to your own devices as to what to say. It sounds easier than it is, especially when you find that the person next to you has just said what you’d planned on saying and you have to think of something else. Still, it was relatively painless, and I have to say that the the crew, the faux wife and the filmmaker were all as pleasant as could be and a joy to work with all the way around.
And then as soon as it began, it was over and we were sent our separate ways. Our brief flirtation with stardom was over and done with. Or at least that was the case till this past week when we received word that the episode in question would air on Friday April 24 at 8 p.m. on ABC. I’m sure that when that happens, Hollywood offers will start rolling in. (I will stave off the inevitable comment by going ahead and remarking that the Three Stooges movie has already been cast.) Actually, what I honestly expect is to find that the two or three hours of taping will result in maybe 30 seconds of screen time for all of us. (Hey, I wonder if this’ll be added to my credits on the IMDb?) Fame is fleeting and so, I imagine, will be our appearance on Wife Swap. Regardless, next Friday will mark the first time I deliberately watch the show rather than just bump into it because it happens to be on.