Reality shows about homeownership or weddings always have a hook. Love It or List It, which features couples choosing between a freshly renovated version of their house or a brand-new, grander house pits nostalgia against novelty. Property Brothers, which turns fixer-uppers into palaces, evokes the magic of possibility. Brides on a Budget promises you don’t need big money for special memories, and Say Yes to the Dress is basically just a fantasy land to dip into for an hour at a time.
Marriage or Mortgage, out today on Netflix, strikes a strange balance between modesty and grandeur. It follows 10 couples who are choosing between dropping their savings on a dream wedding or their first home. To help with this decision, wedding planner Sarah Miller shows the couple desirable venues and custom suits, while real estate agent Nichole Holmes highlights open kitchens and walk-in closets on property tours. Miller and Holmes up the ante by getting the couples emotionally invested, suggesting ways to honor late parents during the wedding ceremony, or staging homes with nurseries for clucky couples. Each woman hopes to woo the couple into their respective schemes — and presumably a nice chunk of commission.
On Marriage or Mortgage, there’s no pretending that you can have it all — you have to choose. The show lets us see how the couples select one of their first big joint investments: Will they prioritize the security of homeownership or celebrate their relationship with the nuptials they’ve always wanted?
A year ago, this might have felt like a more relatable quandary. The show was filmed pre-lockdown — with some post-COVID follow-ups — when choosing between a home and a wedding was less fraught. But after a year of wedding cancellations and fretting over guidelines for gatherings, the marriage versus mortgage matchup is a reminder of a recent “normal” that now doesn’t exist. Our present reality makes the idea of choosing a craft brewery venue with a late-night food truck over a place to live, as one couple does, feel so jarring that I was yelling at the screen mere moments into the first episode.
The first couple, Evan and Liz, have just moved from Naples, Florida, to Nashville. They’re working toward a deadline — Evan’s new employer has provided them with hotel accommodation for 30 days — so housing is a priority. On the other hand, they could drop their $35,000 in savings on a wedding; it would be romantic and fun, and create a lifetime of memories. Plus, they’ve gone to so many other weddings. It’s their turn now!
The persuasive tactics start to fly. Holmes stages the potential homes with a doghouse and Evan’s dream arcade game, Golden Tee. Miller scores transportation discounts and free drapery at the venue, promising their dream wedding will come in under budget. The final ace up Holmes’ sleeve? She announces that one property’s price has dropped by $20,000. This battle for business is where Marriage or Mortgage’s brand of aspirationalism comes in — this kind of wooing is a far cry from the reality of real estate shopping. Across the country, real estate has been booming despite the pandemic. In big cities, it’s not uncommon to have to bid above asking on homes, forgo inspections, or write sappy letters to the seller just to make sure your offer will be considered.
Spoiler alert: They choose the wedding. But cruelly, as we discover in a segment filmed three months later, they can’t even make their $35,000 festivities happen, because COVID-19 hits, underscoring just how ephemeral their choice was.
It’s the kind of vicarious reality TV we all love: the delicious spectacle of watching other people make life-altering decisions instead of having to make them yourself. You get to experience the high stakes of spending five figures, but with none of the consequences. Watching the drama play out during the pandemic, however, intensifies the results. They couldn’t possibly know what was going to happen, but we do.
The show isn’t without allure. By the second episode, my girlfriend and I were earnestly discussing homeowners association fees and the relative cost of a venue that supplies chairs and tables compared to one that doesn’t. We bet on how Holmes would wield her specific brand of manipulation, and were sometimes on the money, predicting the framed homage to a woman’s late father in one show kitchen.
But it’s hard to watch Marriage or Mortgage with equanimity given that for many Americans, neither a marriage nor a mortgage is in the cards right now. Knowing what has happened in the past year, the show can be enraging; releasing it at a time when job loss and evictions are rampant and huge weddings can’t take place is just absurd.
And yet, what is reality TV for, if not escapism? I found myself rooting for an older lesbian couple who had met later in life to have their, as they call it, “big gay wedding.” Usually, this would be a more accessible dream. Now, for many of us watching, it seems less attainable; I wanted so badly for them to have it.
This show is going to be divisive. Watching it with others may inspire heated debate and reflections on what the pandemic has done to our expectations of the future. It might not be your idea of a casual weekend watch, especially if the title is a reminder of things lost. But if pondering the bittersweet elusiveness of financial security and making memories with loved ones would lead to hopeful nostalgia rather than despair, by all means — make your choice. ●