ABC's Wife Swap has been around for an entire decade, and has done so well over its 10-year run that last year ABC launched Celebrity Wife Swap just to fill the void between Wife Swap seasons.
What kind of celebrities appear on Celebrity Wife Swap? Garey Busy, Ted Haggard, Kate Gosselin, Kendra Wilkinson... These are people who have padded out entire careers in the reality world and don't seem to be looking back. And Sunday's episode, featuring Melissa Rivers swapping with Bristol Palin in an hour-long, fish-out-of-water scenario, played it so by the book, you could have lazily scripted the episode yourself.
Anyone who watched Joan Rivers' amazing documentary Joan Rivers: Piece of Work knows the woman feeds off having a busy schedule. And she's busier than ever these days, with E!'s Fashion Police, her own online talk show In Bed With Joan (yikes?), and appearances galore. She has carved out quite a little empire for herself, and brought her daughter Melissa along for much of the ride. In fact, we learn through Celebrity Wife Swap that Melissa is actually one of the executive producers of Fashion Police and spends a great deal of her time managing her mother's career. She's also mother to a very sweet 12-year-old son named Cooper, and lives in a brightly lit home near Malibu that also doubles as a production office for much of the Rivers' work.
Meanwhile, Bristol Palin has followed up her mother's unsuccessful VP run in 2008 with appearances on Dancing With the Stars and a book about growing up in the spotlight. She lives in Wasilla, Alaska, with her 4-year-old son Tripp and her aspiring hair/makeup artist sister Willow, 18. We also learn through the show that she is absolute reality TV poison. Her monotone speech and detached personality are only magnified in the presence of veteran characters like Joan and Melissa. She and her sister come across as wide-eyed bumpkins — just as the show would like, by the way — while Joan and Melissa play the savvy Hollywood mavens.
Sure enough, Melissa and Bristol encounter all kinds of issues once the swap goes down. Melissa thinks little Tripp needs some serious disciplining, while Bristol thinks the Rivers ladies need to loosen up and ditch their fancy duds and elegant dinners. We see Melissa gag when trying to swallow a bites of moose liver left in the freezer. And, of course, we see Bristol squirm uncomfortably at a "welcoming" dinner put together by Joan that has guests (politely) asking the young Palin how she views being the daughter of such a notable political figure. To her, this is mysteriously perceived as some kind of interrogation that has her "defending herself." Being asked about your famous mother when you've both appeared on countless reality shows and released books with your faces on the covers does seem a little prying, no?
Things continue to stay bumpy, which is probably not a surprise to a regular viewer… or anyone who has been following the trail of bread crumbs known as the narrative arc of this show. Bristol bristles at having to critique celebrity outfits when she's asked to step into Melissa's producing position at Fashion Police. Meanwhile, Melissa actually has a blast riding through the mud and snow outside Bristol's rural home.
Then the women are allowed to institute their own rules. Bristol forces Joan and Cooper to loosen up by eating boxed macaroni and cheese off paper plates while standing in the kitchen (whee! fun!). For some reason, there's an insanely short scene in which Joan is allowed to drive — something we've already been warned she must not do — with Bristol in the passenger seat. The two plow into a plastic trash can and… scene. Meanwhile, Melissa puts together a sticker chart to aid Tripp in working towards better behavior.
The point is: Yawn. The show is predictable, leans cartoonishly on voice-over explanations, and rarely allows for genuine moments to play out. Instead, it's tiny vignette after tiny vignette that further proves the original conflict that was initially set into motion. While it's fine for a show to circle back around to the lesson-learning portion, there has to be some sense of adventure or experience shared between the start and the finish.
Celebrity Wife Swap never lets the audience settle in and absorb any one scene, or guess what might be around the next narrative bend. Every encounter is so clearly soft-scripted and overly produced that neither woman seems genuinely affected by having to spend two weeks with another family. Sure, we know there are cameras present and producers guiding the story through it's necessary hiccups and eventual resolution (spoiler alert!) but there's little care put into making the show feel genuine in the slightest.
Even with the teary reunion between the two families at the end of the show and the purported lessons learned between Melissa and Bristol's styles of parenting, it feels hollow and tinny. Try as the Rivers' women might to deliver some semblance of reality entertainment with their oversized personalities and gravelly voices, the show falls flatter than flat. The only genuine moment of unexpectedness is how very likable and normal ol' Todd Palin is during his few stop-ins to visit Melissa and family. The takeaway? Todd Palin's Celebrity Snowmobile Wars! (Just a thought, ABC...)
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