A reality series airing this month is asking whether family-determined matchmaking can be a truly viable way to find love.
Airing Tuesdays on U.S. cable net FYI, Arranged looks at three modern American arranged marriages with different cultural tenors.
Moxie Pictures president Dan Levinson initially pitched the series to the A+E-owned channel as a hard-hitting documentary feature about arranged marriage in the Hasidic Jewish community.
“I fell in love with the title in particular,” says FYI’s SVP of programming Gena McCarthy. “But I wanted to develop a different approach to the narrative that worked less as a documentary and more as an aspirational, entertaining lifestyle series.”
Similar to the lifestyle net’s reality hit Married at First Sight, the project was reformatted as a documentary series that follows three couples who, in this case, get hitched at the behest of their respective families.
“On Married At First Sight we pose the question, does science or self-determination lead to true love?” says McCarthy. “On Arranged I thought we could explore this idea of a family [decision] versus the Western view of free will in determining whether a marriage will last.”
As the mother of one character puts it, “Love that happens in an arranged marriage is over time. You learn to love each other – love doesn’t happen at first sight.”
What determines a successful marriage is not only intriguing to FYI. Discovery-owned TLC has greenlit the upcoming Magical Elves-produced social experiment Marriage Pact as well as Thinkfactory Media’s arranged marriage series Married by Mom and Dad, both of which are slated to debut later in the year.
While TLC is big on weddings, McCarthy is careful to note FYI is interested in the broader category of relationships or what they call “social circle” programming.
The series premiered last week and its Tuesday night slot encompasses a programming block that attracts a mostly upscale, 75% female audience thanks to the success of Married At First Sight. As part of the programming strategy to reach that audience, FYI is avoiding wedding-centric reality shows and docusoaps.
“Viewers are fatigued of just another acted, scripted docusoap,” she explains. “In choosing projects we deliberately don’t select docusoaps. We can do documentary series but we have to deliver real take-away and the characters have to be authentic. Very few people out there in the competitive landscape are doing that. It’s a white space for us.”
In the first episode (available to stream in the U.S. here), viewers are introduced to three couples: Josh and Meghan, a Christian couple from South Carolina who were betrothed by their mothers years prior; Ragini and Veeral (pictured, below), whose different Indian backgrounds complicate their wedding planning; and Christian and Maria (pictured, above), a young Romani couple who do not meet until their wedding day.
Moxie spent nearly four months searching for the cast. Aside from being in arranged marriages, casting directors wanted couples who were relatable, of diverse backgrounds and surrounded by families involved in the courtship and marriages.
For showrunner and executive producer Sven Nilsson, a big part of the process was conveying the complexities involved in Romani and Indian cultural traditions without direct interventions from producers. The show is documentary-style and free of the usual reality TV instigation tactics, he says.
“Knowing that the arranged marriage is a more sensitive topic than others I wanted to make sure we were giving an honest portrayal so the show is not indirectly promoting stereotypes or falling into traps,” explains Nilsson, “and that the casting is leading the story. I met with my cast regularly. We look to their lives for real events and activities to cover or not to cover as the couple flows through those moments of life.”
Of the three couples, Romani couple Christian and Maria seem to have the least say in their matrimony. Their parents negotiated the arrangement process, which involves a dowry, and Maria appears visibly nervous throughout the episode. At one point, Christian tells the camera that his bride-to-be will have to do as he says once married.
Meanwhile, Ragini and Veeral met online via an “arranging” site and asked their families to weigh in afterwards. Their storyline focuses on how Ragini’s career aspirations and self-determination cause tensions with her traditionalist fiance and his family.
In all three cases, the parents are intimately involved in the couple’s lives, providing advice and support in ways Nilsson found atypical of modern marriages based on love. Thus, persuading the parents – not just couples – to get on board added another layer to the casting process.
“You really need to develop relationships with the communities and the people in these communities who facilitate these arrangements,” says Nilsson. “That was the key to the casting. Otherwise, these communities are very private and so that was the gentlest way in.”
Although Christian’s mother and father Nina and Michael are a major focus of the premiere episode, Maria’s family declined to participate in the production. Christian and Maria were often reluctant to open up about their feelings on camera so producers gave them cameras they could use to film themselves.
“With each culture there are specifics that aren’t always expressed,” adds Nilsson. “We worked very closely with them on how to express things that were going on in a way that worked for them but also explained what they were going through in their relationship.”
Another technique producers employed was dual interviews with the couples and their parents – or what McCarthy calls “When Harry Met Sally couch chat.” During one such interview in episode one, Josh and Meghan get into an argument over her spending habits – a big focus of the premiere episode – when she calls him cheap for not respecting her material needs.
“What if I want to get a new pocketbook?” she asks.
“If it’s a nice pocketbook and it’s going to be sturdy and last,” he shoots back. “That way you don’t have to buy another pocketbook in two years.
“Two years?” she replies, he mouth agape in horror. “I hope I get a pocketbook at least every couple of months.”
That exchange lasted 10 minutes and was cut down for the final version. Producers were so happy with the results from these sessions – which often sent the couples off on unprompted arguments and discussions – they also sat the parents down for couch chats.
“That technique worked because the couples could explore an idea together and were comfortable talking from opposing sides in a way that was not combative,” explains Nilsson.
Production began in September in New York City, South Carolina and Los Angeles and ran through early April – an unusually long schedule for a reality series. The shoot had to be staggered when one couple dropped out of the filming and was replaced but the extended schedule also allowed producers to delve deeper into the marriages. Crew size varied depending on what was being covered. Cameras ranged from one on regular days to three on wedding days.
Ultimately, both Nilsson and McCarthy found the communal responsibility that the families felt toward the couples the most interesting theme to emerge during the shoot.
“It’s interesting that of all the guys I dated and brought home, the only person every single one of my family members, including my parents who are divorced, fell in love with at first sight is the man that I married,” offers McCarthy. “Maybe mother does know best?”
Watch the teaser for Arranged below: