EletiofeNetflix’s Marriage or Mortgage Is Maddening

Netflix’s Marriage or Mortgage Is Maddening


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Expecting reality television to be morally sound is like assuming a hungry vulture will politely ignore roadkill: You’ll inevitably be disappointed, and probably a little grossed out. Vultures are scavengers—they see carrion, they eat it. And reality TV is about entertainment, not ethics. Despite knowing this, I spent the last few minutes of most episodes of Netflix’s newest reality show Marriage or Mortgage yelling “No! No! No!!!” at my screen, floored by how deftly it tempted contestants into making poor choices.

My longest, loudest “No!” came during the third episode, which follows college sweethearts Precious and Alex. Together for nine years, they’ve managed to save up $30,000 toward their future, and have been pre-approved for a $350,000 mortgage. They’re eager for a new home, especially because their cramped apartment doesn’t have a washer and dryer, and they lug their soiled clothing every week to Alex’s mother’s house. “We want to start a family soon, and that’s our main priority,” Precious says. With their budget, they can find three- or four-bedroom homes, with laundry rooms and space to sprawl. Seems like a cut-and-dried time to find a house, right? Right?

It should be, but Precious and Alex are on Marriage or Mortgage, so that’s not their only option. The show follows couples in the Nashville area as they decide whether to get hitched or buy a house first. So Precious and Alex are shown several appealing houses by real estate agent Nichole Holmes, but also chauffeured to several event spaces by wedding planner Sarah Miller. Holmes and Miller, both cheerful, chatty redheads, compete by wooing the show’s couples with competing visions of the future. Holmes finds the pair a bright three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath single family home with a working fireplace under budget—and even gets the sellers to throw in a credit to buy all-new appliances, a priority for Precious. Despite being presented with an affordable dream home, the couple picks a splashy wedding instead, spending more than $6,000 on the dress and commissioning a custom ranch-dressing fountain for guests. A title card flashes at the end, informing viewers that the couple continues to live in their small, no-laundry apartment. Noooooooooooooo!

Lest you suspect this is the diatribe of an anti-romantic curmudgeon—I love weddings! I’ve been to more than 30 as a guest. They were all lovely, each and every one. I’ve never been keen on scrutinizing the financial decisions of my friends and family, so I don’t know if each wedding was the wisest money choice. But they were wonderful moments. Watching the couples on Marriage or Mortgage get walked through delightful wedding options customized to their dream days made me hope they could have the event they wanted someday, too. Of course it did. But not at the expense of all their savings.

Based on their mortgage approvals and stated professions, each couple presented as middle-class and self-financed. (Only one is given money from parents.) How long will it take them to save up a formidable nest egg again? There will always be ranch dressing to pour into a fountain, but will interest rates still be historically low at that point? The idea that every couple requires a full-blown Wedding Industrial Complex–compliant event, replete with cocktail reception and tiered cake, in order for their love to be properly celebrated and acknowledged is simply wrong-headed. Yes, cocktail receptions are very fun. Cake is delicious. But weddings aren’t marriages, and many happy, long-lasting partnerships begin with elopements or a simple ceremony at City Hall. Meanwhile, you don’t need to own property to have a cozy refuge, but home ownership is one of the few reliable wealth-building tools in reach for many middle-class Americans. Saving up for a down payment can take years of financial sacrifices and hard work.

Filmed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Marriage or Mortgage is streaming into a changed world, and the recent social upheaval makes its premise all the more preposterous. “Should I spend my nest egg on a fun, lovely party or do the one single thing most likely to set me and my family up for financial success?” was never a hard question to answer. We all know the smart response. But it’s never been easier to see how absurd the question is. While weddings across the country have been postponed or canceled, the importance of having a peaceful place to live has been more abundantly clear. The folly of Marriage or Mortgage’s titular proposition is now so obvious, in fact, that I wonder whether it’s the sort of show that’s been fine-tuned for hate-watching. (It’s also hard not to entertain the notion that it might be anti-wedding propaganda in disguise.)

By the time I finished Marriage or Mortgage, my throat was a little hoarse. Most of the couples choose to spend their savings on a wedding. Most then have to scale it back or modify due to the pandemic, making their decision to splash out on a single event all the more scream-worthy. Why did it provoke such a visceral reaction? Sure, part of it is the inherent false equivalence between weddings and housing, the conceit that choosing one of those two things is a reasonable dilemma. But lots of reality TV is built on slick fantasy. (Hello, The Bachelor.) Compared to the most flamboyantly exploitative offerings in the genre—remember Kid Nation?—Marriage or Mortgage doesn’t register as especially sinister. Instead, the show’s worst transgression might be how ill-suited it is to the present moment. In an era of financial precarity, it pulls an insidious trick. It insists what we want is the same as what we need.

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