Can ABC's `Wife' handle being No. 2?

Fox's reality show with same premise debuted month ago


September 29, 2004|By Noel Holston | Noel Holston,NEWSDAY

Does ABC deserve a "D" for desperation or an "E" for effort? Faced with the frustrating reality that Fox got its show Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy on the air a month ago, ABC is valiantly (or vainly) promoting its show Wife Swap as "the original." Which it was. A year ago. In England.

If there were any likelihood that Wife Swap would be the "water-cooler show" that ABC hoped for, surely it has been reduced sharply by the pre-emptive debut of Fox's knock-off, which last week attracted 7.4 million viewers, good for a decent but unceremonious 43rd place in the Nielsen prime-time rankings.

Both shows are far more chaste than their suggestive titles insinuate. Both take two women with sharply contrasting parenting and homemaking styles and put them in charge of the care and feeding of each other's families. Each woman is obligated to follow the other's rules for a week before imposing her own for a similar stretch of time. Fox's show varies the formula occasionally by making two dads the fish out of water.

The exchanges are recipes for hostility and hurt feelings, but theoretically both families will be better for the ordeal and so will those of us who watch them go through it. At least that's the stated goal of Wife Swap's creators. While Trading Spouses gives each participating family $50,000, with the twist that the "guest" mom chooses how it's spent, Wife Swap has no monetary incentive.

"The reward is the hope that your relationship will be stronger as the result of taking part in the show," said co-executive producer Stephen Lambert. "Our experience in the UK and already with the episodes we've been doing in the States [is that] marriages have been strengthened as a result of this."

(In tonight's time-period debut of Wife Swap, one wife is a multimillionaire Manhattanite with six servants, including four nannies, so she can have "me time" to shop and keep her derriere firm. The other wife, from rural New Jersey, drives a school bus and runs a firewood-cutting business in addition to her household duties.)

It remains to be seen whether there's enough interest in this format to sustain a second mid-level success. Wife Swap is more concisely presented - every installment is self-contained, whereas Trading Spouses is spread over two hours - and its producers do seem more dedicated to ending on an optimistic note. Still, Wife Swap feels second-hand on arrival.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Wife Swap

When: Tonight at 10

Where: WMAR, Channel 2

In brief: Has Fox's Trading Spouses stolen ABC's thunder?

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