In Lifetime's Married at First Sight, a panel of relationship experts match singles who know nothing about each other until they meet at the altar; then the production films them for the first eight weeks of their legally binding marriages, at the end of which each couple decides whether to stay together or get a divorce. It's unconventional, and yet we've embraced so many dating reality shows over the years that the premise barely even seems that crazy anymore. (Then again, I'm old enough to remember Chains of Love.)
Probably the strangest aspect of Married at First Sight is how often it actually works. Prior to the just-ended 11th season, 31 couples had been matched, of which nine are still married. A 29% success rate might not seem all that high, but it's a lot higher than you'd expect from a Danish reality TV format that began its American life on the under-the-radar basic cable channel fyi before moving to sister network Lifetime in its fifth season. The tenth season brought a lot of fireworks: fights over excessive social media use, transparent lying about salaries, and secret texting between a groom and one of his new wife's friends; one of the couples even split before the official Decision Day. As a devoted fan of the show, I doubted that Season 11 could possibly surpass its predecessor. How wrong I was.
While the first two seasons were set in the greater New York City area, since then the production has moved to a new city with each new season; the 11th — which just wrapped Thursday night and is now streaming on Lifetime — set up camp in New Orleans. For the first several episodes, everything proceeded as we've come to expect: the couples were matched, got married, honeymooned at the same resort, and returned to town, where they all moved into furnished apartments in the same building. Then the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Crew members departed. The couples were left to tape themselves. And what was originally supposed to be an eight-week endeavor doubled in length. The New Orleans newlyweds came into Decision Day knowing each other better than the couples in any of the show's other seasons.
Even if the lockdown hadn't happened — and lord knows it's tested marriages between people who did know each other's names before they arrived at the altar — this likely would have been an outstanding season thanks to excellent casting across the board. By that do I mean that the experts made five great matches who are going to be together forever? Oh my, NO.
Schadenfreude is one of the primary pleasures of Married At First Sight. As a viewer, you hope for at least one drastic mismatch of a couple whose misery is, you feel, their just punishment for participating in such a hubristic enterprise in the first place. This season we got two. I was pretty certain that Brett wasn't cut out for marriage when he hit on one of his fellow grooms' female friends at their joint bachelor party; I was not prepared for the primary source of contention between him and his wife, Olivia, to be finances — specifically that he thought she was irresponsible because she doesn't own her home and occasionally likes to take vacations. The moment when he not only moves out of their show-provided apartment while she's away but also loots all their groceries is, maybe, a kindness for Olivia, leaving her in no doubt as to how hard she should try to patch things up with him. That Brett doesn't even make it to the end of the reunion episode, leaving all the other newlyweds to talk shit about him in his absence, is a hilarious highlight of the season, although he is right about one thing: it is annoying when you're showing someone a movie you love that they've never seen and they won't put down their phone. On the other hand, we didn't see what movie Brett was screening for Olivia, and based on what we do know about his personality, it was probably dumb. (Given his age, I'm thinking... Old School?)
Then there's Henry and Christina, possibly the worst match in the history of the show. They were already barely able to maintain a normal conversation with one another before... The Text. According to Henry, Christina told him (off-camera) that she'd received a text stating that he'd been having sex with an unnamed man, and that if Henry didn't "have her back" on camera, she'd out him. There are about a thousand things wrong with this scenario, from the absurdity of a blackmail threat that hasn't really been scary since J. Edgar Hoover was alive to the fact that she apparently never showed Henry the alleged text to the changing story about who sent it. When Henry confronts her about it on Decision Day, Christina is obviously unprepared for him to "out" himself, and her flustered attempt at damage control seems to confirm that she faked the whole thing.
By the time the cast reconvenes for the reunion, Henry has even more dirt: though he already knew Christina had emerged from a five-year relationship eight months before their wedding, he didn't know that said relationship was with a married man (which she doesn't deny); he's also heard she and her ex engaged in toxic games with each other, and she seems to have pulled that stuff on Henry too. I'm not sure how a possibly unhoused grifter with a possible history that includes possibly making criminal threats got through the production's screening process, but since Henry seems fine and as far as I know isn't planning to sue any of the entities that make the show for hooking him up with her, I'm not mad their paths crossed and that we got to watch what happened.
Vicious fighting, however, is only part of what makes the Married at First Sight formula work; we also want to see at least one happy match that makes us believe love can be real, and we got two of those this season, too.
Woody and Amani were — from what we could see — attracted to each other the second they met, and have only deepened in love as the season went on. We learn that Woody has a hard relationship with his father, and how meaningful it's been for to him that Amani's two dads, and the rest of her family, have been so welcoming to him. There's no doubt what their Decision Day choice will be from the moment when, in the voice-over for their intro package, Woody simply states, "Amani is my wife." No, you're crying! Well, Woody's definitely crying.
Meanwhile, the season's breakout couple featured the two least likely participants of the whole series to date: Bennett and Amelia. Unlike the normies who generally populate Married at First Sight, Bennett's a part-time artistic director of his own theatre company, a part-time pedi-cab driver, and the owner of a tiny house that he built himself; Amelia is a doctor who accessorized her wedding gown with a miniature decorative bird's nest in her hair and whose bridesmaids preceded her down the aisle on unicycles (which she also rides recreationally). Amelia and Bennett are, in short, two gigantic goofballs. Story editors try to make it seem as though there might be some suspense about Amelia and Bennett's longevity as a couple, but nothing could be more pointless. Bennett and Amelia even make their hippie-ish hobbies seem adorable and not tiresome affectations. These two were fated.
Right in the middle were Karen and Miles, although they started rough: hours before the wedding, Karen told a producer she had received a misdirected text containing Miles's full name, looked up his Instagram, and was turned off by how emotional he was. Yes, on his wedding day. Karen's retrograde notions about "masculinity" only seemed to calcify as the season went on, with her on the lookout for signs that Miles wasn't what she'd told the experts she wanted.
Things only got worse when Miles explained to her that he has depression, for which he is treated; this seemed to come as a huge shock to Karen, the only 30-year-old never to have had a friend or loved one disclose this to her before. While the entire internet fell in love with Miles and cursed Karen for not appreciating the great man the experts had paired her with, Karen grew increasingly wary of him, until finally Miles spoke frankly about his needs and how she wasn't meeting them, and according to him, she stepped up. I still don't totally think Karen is good enough for Miles — every time the camera caught her face on Decision Day, she seemed like she was white-knuckling it and/or giving the answer she thought would stop strangers from throwing garbage at her out of moving cars — but I guess I will trust in Miles's trust of her.
In conclusion, I'm grateful to Miles — and Karen, in her cloddishness, out of which I hope she's grown — for using their time this season to open a discussion about mental illness stigma. I have never been more confident of anything than I am of Woody's ability to make Amani feel like a queen every day of her life. The journey I took with Christina and Henry had me completely switching allegiances between them like I literally never have with any reality-show couple in my life. I think Brett has done tremendously important work to increase visibility for the community of fuckbois who are also cat dads: they exist. In the many seasons to come, will the experts ever make a match I root for as hard as I have rooted for Amelia and Bennett? I really doubt it, but I will be watching every second to find out.
Married at First Sight is expected to return for Season 12 in the second half of 2021.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.