Celebrity Wife Swap: Apocalyptic Nightmare or PR Dream?

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I wasn't taking the whole 2012 apocalypse theory all that seriously until the premiere of Celebrity Wife Swap last night. After watching Gayle Haggard pray with Gary Busey and a man dressed head to toe in buckskins, I think we may have just seen the last proud vestiges of Western Civilization dissolve in between Activia commercials.

The original Wife Swap was a UK import that saw two moms trade households for two weeks. In the first week, the wives would get into their new households' routines, and in the second, they'd lay down new laws, forcing their adoptive families to play by whatever rules they imposed. The celebrity version is abbreviated; the women swap for a few days, not two weeks. And rather than matching up contrasting parenting styles or professional fields, Celebrity Wife Swap kicked things off by trading out the two very nice wives of two volatile and notorious men: Ted Haggard and Gary Busey.

Ted Haggard was an evangelical superstar until allegations that he'd had an affair with/bought meth from a male masseur (all the while preaching against gay marriage). His wife stayed by his side during what the family delicately refers to as "the scandal," a nationwide uproar that effectively shamed him from his elite right-wing circle. Haggard has since started a new church with some folding chairs and a barn. His wife, Gayle, wrote a book about her side of the experience, making her involvement in the show seem part book tour, part fulfillment of her responsibility in the whole family’s attempt to convince viewers the Haggards are nicely recovered from Ted’s 24-hour flu equivalent of complete hypocrisy.

Gary Busey, obviously, is the national treasure that cut his substantial reality teeth on I’m With Busey, and made last season's Celebrity Apprentice a surrealist fever dream. The joy of last night's Celebrity Wife Swap premiere was in watching Gary Busey unfettered, transitioning between a childish falsetto and tones of utter conviction as he assured Gayle he had been "burned as a female witch in a past life."

Gary was blissfully incurious about Gayle's life, which you would think would be a relief but undermined her book hawking. When she coyly prompted him to ask her anything, he asked what sports she played in her youth (barrel racing!). Their odd chemistry continued to sizzle as Gary tried to convert her to his spiritual pastiche of Native American tradition and near-death experience, concepts no less abstract than the house rules she tried to impose on him.

The less joyful aspect was the painful solidarity of the Haggard children beside the disconnected cheerfulness of their father. Despite what had to be a bizarre atmosphere, Gary Busey's surprisingly hot and sane fiancee, Samantha Sampson, admirably pinned Ted down about gay rights, asked the "kids" what rules they'd like her to impose, and was a good enough sport to lead a women's bible study group on her first day.

The blip in the Haggards' attractive facade came after Samantha mandated some daddy-daughter time between Ted and his oldest child, Christy (who's still living at home at age 30?). Instantly, both Ted and her younger brother started attacking Christy for implying that Ted was "not trying." Either this was a reaction to her usurping precious camera time, or the family atmosphere is so externally pressurized that the smallest internal criticism or need is seen as a betrayal.

At the end of the episode, the two couples sat down to discuss their experiences and engage in a little competitive PDA. Because both houses are staffed enough that chores aren't an issue, and the truncated time span of the swap clearly didn't impress either side with any genuine insights, the conversation quickly turned theological. You guys, a group of four people with less credibility on the subject could not be assembled. In a jaw-dropping moment, Ted compared his ordeal to the persecution of Jesus, and chortled that he had to "resurrect" in Colorado Springs, the very place where he had “crumbled.” When his wife mentioned Bob offering to cleanse her soul via sage and an eagle's wing, Ted cheerfully interjected "I should think the blood of Christ does that thoroughly!"

Splashing around the phrase "the blood of Christ" on a reality TV show makes me almost as uncomfortable as watching someone who lied to his family and preached hate comparing a shameless PR campaign to the resurrection. Even Gary Busey seemed discomfited, like he was trying to wrap up the conversation. The show, at that point, was too nuts even for Busey.

Celebrity Wife Swap initially "soft-launched" after The Bachelor on Monday night, with a preview episode that swapped Tracy Gold and Carnie Wilson. In retrospect, it was clearly the TV equivalent of pulling long sleeves down over track marks for a job interview. The Carnie Wilson/Tracey Gold show was an interesting contrast of a creative, less-structured parenting style and a more regimented household. Both "celebrities" came off as down-to-earth, and the tone was more of an intimate conversation with charming people than a voyeuristic shame fest.

But the official premiere stripped away any pretense that these are people like us, with relatable household issues or simple family dynamics. I don't know what, if any, lessons can be gleaned from the singular situations of the Busey tribe or the Haggards' harrowing saga. But the sheer audacity of the show and the mental chess game these publicity-savvy celebrities played in spinning things to support their own zany perspective is absolutely riveting. It's ABC's edgiest fare by far.

Questions:

…Why couldn't this show be a husband swap? Why a wife swap?

…Is Gary Busey merely "on-camera crazy," or is he legitimately insane?

…The non-celebrity Wife Swap had the families trade wives for a full two weeks; the celebrities just trade a few days. Is this because the celebrities are honestly busy, or because their PR people are afraid of getting "that real"?

…The Haggards: recovering from a moral hiccup, or trapped in a dysfunctional hell?

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