Introduction: Attention Deficit...Something-Something
Blame it on whatever you want: a culture that values constant stimulation or poor diets rooted in sugar and caffeine. Wherever you lay the blame, you may agree that today's average media consumer has the attention span of dust mites.
I say all this by way of introducing Wife Swap, where the women of two households change places for two weeks to see how their counterparts live. Each two-week exchange earns its own single one-hour ABC treatment.
A format that would be more ideal if distributed over two episodes in a two-week period can only be accomplished by presenting this show how ABC presents it: at breakneck speed by a perpetually excited narrator! Who talks! All the time! Like this!
The Usual Suspects
You've met the Fockers. Now meet Ellen and Bill Herman of Maryland. The Hermans have one daughter, Chloe, and view themselves as an ambitious, well-to-do family. The Hermans both work in real estate...at least that's what they claim. They make nebulous references to "being in real estate," and they could be CIA spies, for all we know.
The Hermans devote long hours to their careers and don't seem ashamed to admit they spend very little time with Chloe. Ellen outsources the household duties to a housecleaner and a "house manager," who acts as au pair, tutor, event planner, concierge and cook for the Hermans, but especially for Chloe. (Think "Cadbury" from Richie Rich.)
Now meet Donna and Jim Fontaine of Ohio. They have four children, and Donna is their stay-at-home mom. Donna has never worked a day in her life outside her home.
"The time I spend with my children is gold," Donna gushes.
While family time may be important to Donna, cleaning time apparently is not. Thank god this is Wife Swap and not Clean Sweep because the Clean Sweep cast would take one look at Donna's home and their heads would explode.
Donna admits that spending time with her family is more important than cleaning or cooking. Why this woman can't do both (especially since all the children appear to be school-age), I'll never know. Just consider all the stay-at-home moms and dads who manage both their children and some semblance of order and cleanliness in their homes.
In the Fontaines' home, it appears as if every available square inch is covered in, well, stuff. Refrigerator? Covered up with notices and paperwork. Shelves and tables? Covered in gewgaws.
As if this hording behavior wasn't bizarre enough, Donna likes "bulk" shopping--that is, she buys multiples of everything. As far as budgets go, that's considered smart...but not if you already have three years' worth of toilet paper and six months' worth of grape juice.
I've always thought the difference between what's quirky and what's insane is this: A quirky behavior becomes insane behavior when it disrupts how you (and those around you) live. I think bulk shopping is fine. (And most people agree. Otherwise, Sam's Club and Costco wouldn't be so popular.) I think what's not fine is converting one of your two bathrooms into a storage closet.
We see Donna lobbing rolls of toilet paper and paper towels over the shower stall into the shower, which is stuffed with paper products.
It's not just the prospect of saving a dollar or two that appeals to Donna. Donna likes to feel prepared for anything. For example, she has her "cremation dress" picked out. The cremation dress does double duty as Donna's annual Christmas portrait dress.
The Fontaine children call their mother crazy, but one of the boys changes his mind and adds that she's more "zany" than crazy. Bosom Buddies? Zany. Cremation dress? Crazy.
And then we have the Hermans.
They, too, personify my point that insane behavior is quirky behavior that affects your life and the lives of your loved ones.
Ellen confesses that her "house manager" is more like a "wife" to her. (Can I get a bow-chicka-wow-wow?)
Chloe Herman complains that in the absence of her parents, she often feels lonely. (Her folks admit to spending three hours every week with her. Three hours. I spend more time on my grill in an average week.) I'm willing to bet the Hermans have no idea how lonely their daughter feels.
Chloe also complains that her parents are more focused on providing material goods rather than establishing or maintaining a positive emotional bond. Chloe is clearly precocious and mature, not unlike Wednesday Addams. She also appears to have the best grasp on her family situation.
To the Hermans' credit, their home is spotless. If I dropped a plate of spaghetti on their kitchen floor, I would have no misgivings about picking up a fork and making a meal of it, five-second rule be damned. But, hell, your house would be this clean, too, if you had a professional cleaning staff. The only problem I have with the Herman Estate is that their home feels as cold and sterile as a Finnish eunuch. (Hyuck, hyuck!)
And so it is here that the battle lines are drawn: It's a classic matchup between Batty Domestic Mom and Driven Career Woman Mom. The Hermans' story is the stuff from which overwrought Miramax films are made. The Fontaines' story is the stuff from which syrupy, live-action Disney films are made.
Week One: The Herman Hermits
Ellen Herman and Donna Fontaine trade places. Each woman is given the chance to peruse her new surroundings before meeting the other's family.
One of the things that Ellen finds most disconcerting is the placement of a bed in the living room.
Donna marvels at the Hermans' bathroom and remarks, "You can put a lot of paper products in this shower."
Ellen and Donna were asked to produce a "manual" describing their families, their homes and their wife/motherhood philosophies.
Donna is stunned to read that Ellen feels one of her duties is to keep Chloe from driving Bill Herman crazy, while Ellen cocks an eyebrow at Donna disparaging fast climbers of the corporate ladder.
You can read the manuals here. They're scarily worthwhile.
"This house is completely opposite of mine," Ellen wails. "There's so much stuff, it's unbelievable!"
Even more unbelievable to Ellen, apparently, is being forced to make a cheese omelet for the children. We, the viewers, miss the chance to see Ellen open Donna Fontaine's gunny sack of shredded cheese and carton of six dozen eggs, but she stoically finishes cooking breakfast for the children and sends them to school (with a kiss!). She confides to the camera, however, that she feels "resentment" having to cook for the Fontaine children and see them off to school.
In a more whimsical moment, Ellen Herman surveys Donna's knickknacks and shakes her head at the 101 Dalmatians figurines that line the window sills.
I had a friend who loved collecting Disney memorabilia. I used to wonder if Disney produced figurines for all 101 dalmatians. And now I know: They did. And Mrs. Fontaine has all of them. Lining her window sills.
Meanwhile, Donna Fontaine is experiencing her first day ever of working outside her home. Her (nameless, faceless) boss has asked her to do some filing, and Donna doesn't see "the point" of it and decides instead she's going to decorate her cubicle with pencil sketches and snowflakes cut out of photocopy paper. Donna and I must have been separated at birth because this is exactly how I spend my time at work every day.
This started an interesting conversation in my home:
Me: "Ha! Look at that! Ellen is supposed to be a real estate big-shot, but she's only an administrative assistant in some office!"
J: "Uh, dear, I don't think they would let some woman without a real estate license buy and sell property, especially since she's never worked a day in her life. They just found some job so that Donna would have a place to work."
Me: "Oh. Right."
(No real estate license? That apparently never stopped the quote-unquote "agent" who bought my home in California.)
I can't really fault Donna, though. After all, she's right--filing is one of the most pointless activities you can perform at the office. I ought to know. I worked as a files clerk for many a law office back in the day. Typically, I would just walk out of the file room and go chit-chat with the paralegals.
The attorneys always had their underwear in a bunch over this, the buzzkills.
"We can't find the deposition of our chief witness!" they'd moan. Or, "Where's our motion to commute the death sentence for our client! We needed to file that today!" Blah blah blah. Etc., etc. [Makes "yakkity-yak" hand gestures.]
Always Low Prices
While Mrs. Fontaine gets a taste of the corporate life in all its soul-crushing goodness, Ellen goes to market--Donna-style. That means buying in bulk and sorting through a small hill of coupons. Mrs. Herman gamely goes about this and manages to laugh at herself at one point.
Donna Fontaine observes the house manager and asks her a few questions about what she does. A lot of what you do, she replies, causing Donna to shake her head at the "blurred boundaries" between Chloe and her family vis-a-vis Chloe and Anna, the house manager.
It's well past 7:30 pm before Bill comes home from work, and because Ellen has admitted her schedule is as busy as Bill's, I start to see why they believe they need a house manager.
At this point, you're probably wondering what's become of Ellen Herman. Rest assured we glimpse her. What we glimpse her doing, though, mostly is complaining about how "dirty" and "cluttered" everything appears to be.
On the weekend, it's Bill's turn to drive Chloe to her horse show, leaving Donna alone in the house to--via Bill's suggestion--garden and prepare dinner. Donna becomes flustered and admits to doing more cooking in a microwave than in an honest-to-goodness oven. (Methinks milady gets a little help from world-renowned chef Boyardee more often than she prepares a pot roast from scratch.)
In an on-camera confessional, Bill shakes his head at Donna's childishness (his words) and wonders if he'll eat at all that night or whether this will finally lead to a Donna meltdown.
Surprisingly, it's Ellen who has the meltdown in the Hermans' home, as she admits to questioning her "sanity." She wonders aloud, "Is it wrong to be neat?!" Well, Ellen, if being neat is wrong, I don't want to be right.
Week Two: The Fontaine of Love
Now that Ellen and Donna have had the chance to experience life as their counterparts experience it, they have their chance to introduce their lifestyles to their surrogate families.
Highlights from Ellen's talk with the Fontaines:
-The house is a disaster. Scrimping and saving is demeaning.
-Declutter the house!
-"De-kid" the house.
-Hire a house manager.
Highlights from Donna's talk with the Hermans:
-Chloe needs more attention.
-Introduce creativity into the house.
-Has quit her job. Being with Chloe has become her number one priority.
-The staff has been fired. The Hermans will now shop her way. Family time will become a more important component of the household.
Ellen's plan is put into action immediately, as a house manager shows up on the Fontaines' doorstep. Jim Fontaine pounces on her and grills her on what it is a house manager does. Attaboy, Jim! Way to make the help feel appreciated!
Donna introduces Bill to grocery shopping, Fontaine-style. The Hermans, apparently, spend $1,000 each week on groceries and dining out.
I rewind that to make sure I heard that correctly. A thousand each week? For three people? That's almost one-third of what I spend each year on groceries for two. The Hermans must dine at some ooh-la-la places that aren't part of a national chain. And they must shop at those fancy-schmancy grocery stores that always appear to be named for an Italian gentleman ("Dino's," "D'Agostino's Market").
Not me. I like to shop at that place where a flying yellow happy face keeps fluttering around my head, trying to lower the prices of the goods around me. (Until I find the guns at this store and go a'huntin'. We'll see who's smiling and fluttering around, then.)
But I digress.
Under protest from Bill, Donna buys boxes and boxes of Special K and bottles and bottles of Chloe's favorite, Gatorade. Donna is preparing for the horse show championships, I suppose, and making sure that Chloe has enough Gatorade for that all-important horse-show Gatorade dump on the riding coach, no doubt.
Donna also blurts, "I don't buy stuff I don't like just to save a dollar! What do you think I am? Crazy?"
It's an easier setup than a third-grade Whiffleball pitch, but Bill takes it. And bless 'em, because he shows a sense of humor he never exhibited until now.
"Well, could be," he mutters.
Bill protests mightily when Donna buys paper plates. (Donna serves meals on paper so she doesn't have to spend time cleaning dishes afterward. Gives her more "quality" time with the family, and all that.)
Bill's problem with paper is that food slides off. (I think someone's been watching those Chinette commercials, like I have.)
Donna's response? "We'll eat fast."
Bill's hatred of eating off paper plates reminds me of the hatred most men reserve for old-style Communism or the fear that, someday, somehow, the UN will come for their guns.
Happy Fun Time with Ellen Herman
Just as Donna is engaged in arguing with Bill about groceries, Ellen is engaged in tilting at a few windmills of her own. She rounds up all the Fontaines to clean the garage. The garage hasn't been cleaned in 15 or 20 years, Jim admits.
Just as the Fontaines have managed to drag everything out of the garage, but before the cleaning can really commence, rain is on the horizon, forcing everyone to shove everything back in the garage as quickly as possible.
All this really demonstrates to me is that Ellen really is the high-ranking corporate shark I suspected she wasn't. After all, she's shown herself to be proficient at redirecting large groups of people on pointless, poorly-planned vanity projects that are done much too quickly and end in disaster.
Meanwhile, the paper plate argument continues between Bill and Donna. Bill eventually pulls out a calculator like an Old West gunfighter, does a little math and determines that Donna is spending $3 a day, $90 a month, $1,000 each year on paper plates.
How much do place settings for six cost? he asks Donna. And, boy, I've got to hand a point to Bill. He annihilated Donna's rationale for using paper plates.
When the cold, hard light of science reveals Donna's irrational behavior, she reacts with...more irrational behavior. (Not unlike my crazy ex-girlfriends.) She takes a steak knife and starts cutting (sawing?) paper plates in halves and thirds, saying something about how they can all eat off half-plates, negating Bill's math.
"You are wasting money!" Bill bellows. "You are wasting money!"
For the first time this episode, I have to hand it to Bill. He's absolutely right about the plates. Damn math and science. They are important in the real world. Now I wish I'd paid more attention in class.
But where's Ellen? She's hardly getting any face time, as the pros say. And that's probably because Donna makes such good television. Zany beats out tightly-wound any day. Just look at the ratings of any Three's Company rerun against a new episode of 60 Minutes. If I had my choice between the two, I'd be content watching Jack try to juggle two dates at the Regal Beagle over the latest Bush memo flap. And, dammit, that's what makes this country so great.
Donna and Chloe go to the thrift store and bring home--it's assorted, glittery crap, folks. I'm not going to list all this stuff because if you've read this far, you have a fair idea what kind of stuff Donna likes (e.g. blue tinsel). She and Chloe string this stuff around the house.
And for her coup de grace, Donna drags a mattress into the living room.
Ellen sighting: She hires professional movers to drag all the crap out of the Fontaines' home.
When Donna and Chloe show Bill the newly-decorated house, I have to turn away from the television for a moment. It's not often that I encounter a reality-television moment that's so awkward, I force myself to glance away. I expect Bill finally to just go medieval on Donna's ass, but he's the model of self-contained fury. Bill is said to be "upset" and nothing more.
Meanwhile, Jim Fontaine sighting! He likes the look of the garage now that he can finally see the garage floor again. Ho-hum.
The Fontaines have found a hockey stick that had been lost in the chaos of the garage. And when one Fontaine plays a game, all the Fontaines play. That means "Game on!" for Ellen Herman, as well, who is smiling and having a great time playing street hockey.
Ellen begins to wonder about spending more quality time with her family, like the Fontaines spend together.
Go, Chloe. We're Gonna Party...Like It's Your Birthday.
Donna wants Chloe to have a party, and Bill, surprisingly, agrees to it, but not the format (dress-up/sleepover). He feels Chloe is too old for that kind of party and wants Chloe to be honest with Donna about what kind of party she really wants. (Well, gee, Bill, what kind of party do you want her to have? Cocaine and key swap? Frankly, I'd be happy to have a daughter in high school who was still interested in make-believe and sleeping bags.)
A Bill-Chloe argument occurs. It basically goes like this for a few minutes:
Bill: "What do you really want?!"
Repeat two or three times. You get the idea.
Finally, Bill throws his hands in the air and yells, "I'm done!" He stomps off.
Meanwhile, his wife Ellen takes Nicole Fontaine and her friends shopping for their prom dresses. Now, if I were Donna, this would have driven me up the wall. Donna is there for everything, even games of Risk on a mattress. But the really big events? Like shopping for a prom dress for your only daughter? That goes to the obsessive-compulsive stranger who thinks of your family as living marginally better than animals? Oh, hell no.
Meanwhile, I'm conflicted by the scene of Bill and Chloe having a heart to heart talk...on the mattress in the living room placed there by Donna, the mattress that Bill despises. Witnessing both a heartfelt moment between father and daughter and the wackiness of the mattress in the living room? It's like eating peanut butter and chocolate in the same candy. Irony, thou art delicious.
Bill is willing to listen to what Chloe has to say about his behavior, and Chloe admits that she becomes frustrated when Bill acts like he's not listening to her. It's a nice respite from coupon shopping and garage cleaning and seems to bring Chloe and Bill closer.
Flip Flop, Flippity Floppity
Finally, Donna and Ellen return home to their husbands.
When the foursome meet face-to-face for the first time, Ellen lets it all out.
A few highlights from Ellen's outburst:
-The Fontaine home is a dirty, smelly, messy piece of bedlam. (Ouch.)
-Ellen is embarrassed for Donna. Keeping a house like this is a disservice to Jim, her husband.
-Their living situation is "unacceptable."
-Ellen was glad to leave.
-Focusing on the family is not a "validation" of that type of environment.
(I admit that I don't completely disagree with Ellen's last statement.)
Donna Fontaine appears flustered but holds her temper in check. I have to give her that much credit. I mean, the woman may use a shower stall as storage space, but she maintains control of her emotions. Now, me, if someone had disrespected my family and my home like that, I would have gone over the table at her.
Jim Fontaine fires back that the Hermans don't spend enough time with Chloe. The only time you have with her is while driving her to school in the morning.
Ellen responds by saying she admits her life is not perfect, that her life is out of balance. (Lady, ya think? You life is out of balance like a 600-lb man and a 2-year-old boy on a seesaw.)
Bill talks about the talk he had with Chloe, and he genuinely seems to have been affected by that occasion.
We catch up with the Fontaines a few weeks after Donna has been restored to her rightful place. "Absolutely nothing has changed" for this family, the narrator assures us. Donna tells us that she tried to clean and keep a neat house, but they're back to the way they were before Wife Swap. The Fontaine children express a greater appreciation for their mother, leading me to think that ol' Ellen Herman was about as welcome as Mussolini at a World War II veterans' reunion.
On the other hand, the Hermans have tried to schedule one day each week when everyone arrives home early, allowing them to spend time eating together, just talking and taking walks (or so the montage would have us believe).
And if anybody gets anything out of this episode, I admit to being glad it's Chloe, who's shown more maturity and level-headedness than most of the adults combined on this episode.
I've never used a shower stall as storage space, but I have used a couch as my tax-return headquarters. Ask me how at firstname.lastname@example.org.