2016-06-30
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Daytime TV treats marriage as a division of personal crisis. The networks, meanwhile, crank out ridiculous and contrived game shows in which marriage or something like it is the unlikely and possibly unwanted prize. Both leave one asking that popular question, Where's the love? And the answer has been: on sitcoms. Shows like "Everybody Loves Raymond," "The King of Queens," and "The Bernie Mac Show" present far more humane and even more gripping portraits of the marital bond and its attendant family issues.

Yet for all the real people and romantic gamesmanship on television these days, there are no reality shows even trying to take marriage and its ideals seriously. Into this void steps "Married in America," an A&E special from famed English-born filmmaker Michael Apted. Airing on June 17 (9 p.m., the first two hours) and again on June 20 (all three hours, third hour starting at 10 p.m.), the documentary will be updated with fresh interviews every two years over the next decade. The first installment serves as a welcome reminder of the many wholesome reasons people wed, without shying away from the many difficulties waylaying the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Good Intentions as they take that fateful walk down the aisle.

Apted may be best known for his work on the famous "7 Up" series. His first job out of college was to find 20 seven-year-olds to represent the future of the English class system. The show had been conceived as a left-wing polemic, and indeed it gave rise to much debate. Interest was so intense that Apted made the show a series in which the subjects would be revisited every seven years.

Around its fifth iteration, "35 Up," the documentary won great acclaim in the United States for its gentle probing of the ups and downs of its several participants. What had unfolded in these interviews and before the camera was not so much the stuff of Marxist social critique, but a seemingly unobstructed view into why ordinary individuals make the decisions they do. The stories had the character of a long serious talk with someone you haven't seen in a while but for whom you care very much.

Apted, who has lived in the United States since the '80s, brings a similar light touch, if not political agenda, to "Married in America." Speaking of agenda, it bears mentioning that Apted happens also to be the director behind the infamous Robert Redford-produced whitewash of the Leonard Peltier case, "Incident at Oglala," and the related, under-whelming, Val Kilmer flick "Thunderheart." And yet there's no trace of ulterior motive here--though politics can hardly be kept out of a documentary on marriage.

Indeed, one of the nine couples is lesbian. They get hitched in Vermont before returning home to New Jersey to celebrate. They are unfortunately the least demonstrative and gregarious of brides, leaving one with a very limited impression of what life is like for them. They met just as each was tiring of the dating scene, and they began discussing marriage as a result of their shared desire to raise a family. Their story lacks affection and thus warmth, but the viewer is apt to really lose his bearings as the two women search the Internet for a sperm donor. They pick one whose reported qualities match their own self-estimations. "Open and relaxed" it says in the computer profile. "Sounds like us" they say. Click.

More generally, several of the brides express concern about losing their identities, often as they question whether to take their husband's name. None of the men worry about their identities; they are, however, daunted by the possibility that their wives will earn more money than they do. Several of the couples discuss sex without the slightest hint of shyness, a few of them joking so ribaldly it's shocking, even today, that regular people, non-exhibitionists all, are so at ease in front of a camera. Although this may be a side-effect of changing mores, it is also a credit to the casting and Apted's skill as an interviewer.

But the great accomplishment of "Married in America" is bringing out the tremulous high hopes of the soon-to-be wed. Reggie and Betty from Queens, a dark-skinned Haitian man and a white woman, are childhood sweethearts. They go to Weight Watchers together and encourage each other's dreams of becoming stars of the stage and screen. They purchase as their first home a house that lacks running water, heat, and hasn't been inhabited for years. It just happens to be the house in which Betty was born. The unstated desire to set so many things right through marriage takes one's breath away.

And one after another, the couples unpack all the hopes they have stored up. David, 25, has a son from his last relationship. The boy's mommy died in a car accident, leaving him and a half-sister (not David's biological daughter) to be cared for. Fiancee Brenda, 21, is a beautiful Mexican-American girl who says she wants to give David yet another baby, bringing the total number of dependants to three. Asked if they are serious about fidelity, David and Brenda say they are, absolutely. Why cheat, they say, when it's so easy to get divorced?

Another tragedy has proceded the courtship of Chuck and Carol, who are, respectively, 35 and 37, but have lived enough for four or five people. When Chuck, a two-time ex-con, opens his mouth, one imagines would-be crime novelists taking notes. "I brought a lot of baggage into this relationship. She brought a lot of baggage into this relationship. We just put our bags on the table and hashed through them." They're both sober alcoholics. Carol is a grandmother. Chuck is separated from his children as a condition of his parole. And there's even more that shouldn't be mentioned here. Watching the two of them you think marriage isn't merely a high hope, it's a last hope.

As with the "7 Up" series, the sociological value of the documentary pales beside the honestly told struggles of decent people. At times the heart-strings do begin to feel over-plucked and emotional fatigue sets in. Another difficulty is finding oneself so engrossed in a given bride and groom that one isn't ready to leave them and pay attention to the next couple. But these are minor complaints set against the joy of sharing in the hopes of these brave hearts. It's much better for you than finding out "what happens when people stop being polite and start being real" or discovering how many idiots can be lined up on national television for a mystery mate.

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