It's always nice when the ratings numbers reflect that not every hit program revolves around sexuality, snide cynicism or ever-escalating insults. It's refreshing when "reality TV" isn't merely a demented neighborhood full of unemployed porn stars and tragically post-pubescent child actors mugging desperately for a second whiff of fame. Sometimes, real people play themselves on TV and grow a little.
One surprising -- even shocking -- source of uplifting reality television has been ABC's suggestively named "Wife Swap" and the copycat Fox series "Trading Spouses." (ABC can hardly complain about Fox, since ABC stole the idea, and even the title, from Britain's Channel 4.) While the shows center on women from radically different home environments switching places, there is no sleazy expectation of swinging infidelity. Instead, the two families struggle to integrate a total stranger into their lives for a week, and often what emerges by show's end is a renewed appreciation of the very essence of motherhood.
That's not to say that the conventional "reality" show requirements aren't manipulated into place. Yes, yes, producers make sure all kinds of fussing and fighting take place before the happy endings seem to arrive. The "Wife Swap" premiere on ABC comically swapped Caprice, an almost compulsive neat freak, with Bambi, a happy-go-lucky slob who presides over a rules-free household of three children and 23 pets using the entire house as a bathroom. These women are real, and yet extreme, specimens that viewers find unbelievably attractive to watch. The show milks the real-life situation comedy for every laugh, and yet Caprice learns to loosen up, even allowing her two boys to have a cat. Bambi recognizes that organizing a bedtime for her children might not ruin her lifestyle after all.
The shows unfold like a sociology experiment. A less provocative and more accurate title for ABC would be "See How the Other Half Lives," or maybe just "Fish Out of Water." In the second edition of "Wife Swap," the producers switch pampered rich princess Jodi, who has a nanny for each one of her three kids, plus a housekeeper on top, with rough and rural Lynn, who drives a bus and spends hours each day chopping wood. Sparks fly, fights erupt. There are too many "bleeps." Lynn looks preposterous in $700 shoes. Jodi looks hilarious trying to chop wood. But both women end up with a greater appreciation for their own lives.
Up next: A gun-toting Southern mom switches places with an anti-gun animal-rights activist. Let the tofu fly!