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Making sense of the million-dollar TV union

Sunday, February 20, 2000

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

But what does it MEAN?

Is it the end of marriage as we know it? Are the participants desperate, shallow, emotionally crippled or completely off their rockers? Has the women's movement flipped into rapid reverse? Or has reality-based TV just found its future?

These are the multimillion-dollar questions swirling around last week's made-for-TV marriage of rich guy Rick Rockwell to Darva Conger on Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?"

"Well, the huge ratings certainly show that marriage is still a popular topic," said David Popenoe, a sociologist who co-directs the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

Popular, but not very serious.

"This treats marriage as something that requires zero preparation or even knowledge of your partner, which is absolutely the wrong way to look at it," Popenoe said. "Quickie marriages have notoriously high divorce rates."

Yet there is also something very familiar about the basic transaction, if not the crass broadcasting spectacle surrounding it.

"It's about the oldest mating pattern there is," Popenoe said. "Going back in time, women have always wanted men with resources to depend on in child-rearing, and men have always wanted young, beautiful women because that was a measure of health and high fertility.

"Some studies show that this pattern diminishes in societies where women have more economic equality. But the tremendous interest of so many women in marrying this guy without ever meeting him shows it can still hold true. That suggests the tendency could be hard-wired into us to some degree."

It's certainly not unheard of for two people to meet for the first time at their wedding ceremony. Arranged marriages have worked that way for thousands of years, sometimes more successfully than the romantic-love variety.

"But there's a big difference," Popenoe said. "In arranged marriages, the families know each other and get along. There are some assurances of common values. These two were complete strangers."

But what does it say about Rockwell? Is he some kind of defective who couldn't get a woman to marry him once she actually knew him?

Not according to Dr. Mark Goulston, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who met with the prospective bridegroom three days before the show was taped. The mere fact that Rockwell asked for help in sorting out some of his relationship issues before the show puts him way ahead of other ambitious, successful men, Goulston said.

The doctor characterized Rockwell as typical of entrepreneurs: goal-driven and outer-directed but not great at establishing intimacy, even if they want to. Such people, he said, may not realize that what works in business doesn't necessarily work in love.

"When relationships fail, they tend to blame the other person because, after all, they're successful in business and everyone likes them, so it couldn't be their fault. That refusal to take responsibility for what goes wrong can hold them back from forming meaningful relationships."

At the same time, he said, entrepreneurs tend to bounce back after every setback.

"When they get kicked down, they just keep getting up. Their attitude is, 'I'm willing to give anything a try. What have I got to lose except my dignity?' That's what Rick Rockwell was doing in this case. He's tried all the usual avenues and they didn't work, so why not try this one? Especially with the prenuptial agreement, what does he have to lose?"

That doesn't mean Rockwell did it as a lark.

"There were times when he talked about want- ing a relationship that would work, and there was a certain loneliness inside that was different from his goal-directed persona. At times, his eyes watered as if something was getting to him and he didn't know what it was. I believe he sincerely wants something real to come out of this."

Goulston conceded that there was plenty to criticize in the show's circus atmosphere, but he said that didn't make it impossible for the marriage to succeed.

"Everyone is raking this over the coals, and maybe the reason for huge viewership was that everyone wanted to see a train wreck, to see marriage trashed. The challenge is to find something meaningful in the midst of what seems to be utter nonsense.

"What I'd like is for them to really fall in love and thumb their noses at us all."

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said the show captured the public's attention.

"I was riveted for two hours of jaw-dropping television," Thompson said. "A talking horse, a talking car, suburban witches and now millionaires who choose from 50 women. Like it or not, this is America's television tradition."

More voyeuristic reality-TV is coming, he said, pointing the way to this summer's "Survivor" (cameras follow people trapped on a deserted island) and "Big Brother," (cameras follow people in a house).

"The mores of the culture are such that this kind of stuff can get on the air, and the technology allows what might not have been possible before. It's just going to get more and more surrealistic," Thompson said.

Not that that's such a good thing.

" 'All in the Family' did great things for television. "Hill Street Blues" did great things for television. I'm pretty sure we're not going to be saying that about this."

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen contributed to this story.

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