Consuming Passions

The following is a true story: 21-year-old Jennifer is tired of the fact that her boyfriend Chris, who is 26, treats her like a little sister. He never wants to go out. If that's not bad enough, he's too lazy to get a "real" job. Meanwhile, Chris argues that Jen's youth and sexual inexperience account for the fact that things are "awkward" between them in bed. To help them figure out if their relationship is worth saving, Chris and Jennifer turn to the Warner Bros. syndicated television dating show Change of Heart. The show's drill is simple: Couples who have been dating for a period of three to eight months and want the chance to step back and figure out whether they should, as the show's host often puts it, "take their relationship to the next level" or split up are sent on blind dates with people who, on paper, possess some of the qualities they find lacking in their own 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. Then the couple and their respective dates reconvene to describe their encounters for the TV audience and declare whether they want to "stay together" or have a "change of heart."

The show's signature trick is that neither half of the original couple knows what the other will decide until the moment of truth, a moment that carries for the viewer all the fascination and disgust that comes from witnessing a particularly gruesome car wreck, the kind that makes you believe you are about to discover what people actually look like on the inside. That said, if you want to know what happened with Chris and Jen, you will have to read on.

Change of Heart took its place in the realm of late-night dating shows in the fall of 1998, originally conceived as a companion to a revival of the long-running dating show Love Connection, in which contestants choose a blind date from videos and then appear with their dates on the show to report on how things went and decide whether or not to have a second date. Change of Heart upped the ante considerably, putting not just a date but an ongoing relationship on the line. A season later, the new Love Connec tion is in reruns, while Change of Heart is "the highest-rated syndicated relationship series" in the country, accord- ing to Warner Bros., with more than 3 million viewers a day.

Love Connection was itself a slightly higher-stakes version of The Dating Game (1965- 1973), in which the audience watched attractive young adults as they searched lightheartedly for potential soul mates. (Guests on the original Dat ing Game included aspiring actors like Farrah Faw cett, Sally Field, Arnold Schwar ze neg ger, and Steve Martin.) The Dating Game always had a happy ending: A couple went off on a date with nothing to lose and everything- maybe even true love-to gain.

But television has changed since then. The explosive growth of cable has increased the demand for low-budget content, which in turn has spurred the creation of more and more programming in the "real life" genre. From Jerry Springer to America's Funniest Home Videos, we have gotten used to the fact that all aspects of our lives are fair game for television. And years of watching similar shows have prepared the Change of Heart guests 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 most disturbing about the real-life genre "is the sense that simply being on TV obscures all the humiliation." Anyone familiar with MTV's Real World-in which post-adolescents, who have auditioned for the privilege to live together on camera 24 hours a day-knows what Thompson is talking about. So will anyone who tunes in next summer for the newest show in this category, CBS's Island Adventure, in which 16 strangers will go live together on a desert island, deciding every few days amongst themselves which one of them should be exiled and sent home, until only two remain to compete for the million-dollar survival prize. Like musical chairs or choosing teams in elementary school, the premise is inherently painful: There will be a loser, and it might be you.

There is a danger, of course, in taking these shows too seriously. "The reason TV has so much on it that's so stupid is that we so much like to watch stupid stuff," Thompson says. He told me that Change of Heart is perfect for television because it is the kind of show you would only watch in the privacy of your own home. Indeed, shows like Change of Heart are designed to be entertainment, and they make this clear by their tongue-in-cheek antics. On MTV's Blame Game, couples come on the air to tell the story of their breakup, and a studio audience votes on who is to blame. The winners get free vacations; the losers, depending on how apologetic they are, face the threat of having their pictures published in Entertainment Weekly along with a warning not to date them. Among other gimmicks, contestants on The Blame Game are represented by perky MTV "counsel" and have to sing karaoke-style the song that best sums up their relationship. In a similar vein, where I live, two back-to-back half hours of Change of Heart are now followed by the syndicated Blind Date, in which a camera crew accom panies a couple on a first date. Commentary is supplied by cartoon thought bubbles.

Still, shows like Change of Heart, in which the participants presumably have a true emotional investment in the outcome, reflect a troubling trend. Whatever the amount of staging the show's guests subject themselves to-in terms of stepping up the baiting and taunting-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.

Consider the new Forgive or Forget, a kind of Change of Heart that isn't limited to romantic couples, in which a relentless parade of people in all sorts of relationships come to air their grievances and make a choice about whether to forgive or move on. In recent episodes, mothers and daughters have made peace, friends have gone their separate ways, a husband has begged his wife's forgiveness for the ruin of their relationship due to his bulimia. Each within the space of an hour-long episode. If there is a link-as some people say there is with TV violence-between the relationships we view on television and the relationships we enact, what exactly are we learning here?

When I first started watching Change of Heart, I could hardly wait through the commercials. I had to know if the couples were going to 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-the possi bility of getting to see what people look like inside. The problem with these shows is that when we do get to look inside, we don't get to see complexity and responsiveness; we don't get to see people slowly, and with all the difficulty of real insight, coming to change themselves and understand each other.

There is something unapologetically commercial about the message of Change of Heart-that love may be out there or it may be right here under your nose, but there's no harm in doing a little comparison shopping. On the one hand, this approach to dating isn't that different from what your grandmother may have advocated, back before the era of serial monogamy, when dating more than one person was actually considered normal. On the other, conducting this quest on television reflects a curious marriage of old-fashioned optimism and consumer-era cynicism. What's scariest, and what makes Change of Heart so mesmerizing, is that we can recognize in these twenty-somethings our greatest fear, a fear supported by our culture's tireless obsession with trading up: Your girlfriend's too old, so we'll find you a younger version. Your boyfriend's not ambitious, so we'll set you up with a guy who owns a business. Your girlfriend's flat-chested; let's see what we can do about that. But what happens to the fish who get thrown back? And what happens if we accept the idea that love is just about making a shrewd consumer choice? What if, upon finding Romeo dead beside her, Juliet had simply left the crypt, bathed, and taken up with a guy who was more, well, alive? The apothecary, perhaps? At least he has a real job.

"Everything that's wrong with America can be deduced from a single episode of Change of Heart," Thompson said when I spoke to him. Which doesn't mean, he and I agreed, that it doesn't carry a certain fascination. Never theless, this is a show in which human interactions are taken fairly lightly, looks are overvalued, women treat each other with suspicion and cattiness, men are jealous and stubborn, and everyone is critical.

On the upside, I suppose, the show, like its Dating Game predecessor, carries with it the promise that if you know what you're looking for, you might actually find it. (You might even already have it.) In that respect, the late 1990s version of TV dating isn't very different from what's been going on elsewhere, from the bars to the Internet. At, you can specify anything you're looking for in a mate, from body type ("a few extra pounds," "athletic," or "slim") to religion to type of relationship ("short term," "long term," or "activity partner").

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? Love, in Shakespeare's conception, was messy, risky, and all consuming. The couples on Change of Heart seem 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 kinds of television shows-that they reduce the comedies and tragedies of life to nothing more demanding than a consumer product choice. And because we are fascinated, we will watch and allow that to happen.

On the night that Chris and Jen appeared on Change of Heart, I waited impatiently for the moment of truth. Chris spoke first. He said he'd learned a valuable lesson while on his date with the mature and taller Brandy. "I'm going to give Jen more of what she didn't have," he said (attention, spontaneity, and romance, presumably). He turned his card over. "We're going to stay together."

The camera zoomed in on Jen. Her 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 with Dave. "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.

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