Wife Swap is a prime time major network reality series that airs Monday nights at 8:00 pm EST on ABC. The show debuted in 2003 and is still in production.
Each week, from across the country, two families engage a life-swap, entering into a two week challenge period when each family receives a new “wife” and “mother”. ABC takes a very active role in choosing the two families engaged in each swap, selecting the pairs largely based on their vastly different lifestyles or values. Typical swap combinations have featured a wealthy, materialistic family swapping with a family who lives off the land, a lesbian couple swapping with a fundamentalist Christian family and an animal rights activist family switching with a family of hunters. During the two weeks, viewers watch the experience of a woman and a family learning to live with the habits and beliefs of the other, and often times explosive and life changing results occur.
Each wife leaves a manual that describes the running of the household, explaining such details as meal preparation, schedule, expectations, chores, manners and budgeting. During the first week, each new wife is expected to live by the rules of their surrogate family. This week shows each woman as she reacts to the initial loss of power required by the show’s format; she must live the life exactly as the “real wife” does, including rearing the children, cleaning the house and working. The second week is even more drama filled, as the new wife lays down the rules. She superimposes her own beliefs and lifestyle on her new family. For example, if she home schools her own children she is able to withdraw her new brood from whatever school they attend. If she feeds her own family a steady diet of tofu and wheat germ, the new family (who most likely survive on soda and fast food) must abide by the new diet. This week brings huge emotional responses from all family members involved. It is not unusual to see the man of the family crying and storming from his own house in anger and disgust. Children come to see that their “real Mom” isn’t so bad after all, and pine for her return.
The “twist” occurs during each episode when each family discovers they can learn something from the new mom and her way of caring for her family. Bonds usually occur by the end of the second week, and wounds exacted during the first week are healed. The two couples are reunited at the end of the show and a high charged meeting usually ensues. Insults are hurled, but bridges are often built. The show follows up with the families a month later, and viewers see subtle changes apparent in each family.
Wife Swap often has a feel good ending that no one expects.
Fox has recently been sued by ABC for a replication of the original concept. Fox’s Trading Spouses offers a different spin, but is very similar to the ABC original.