Heartbreak and retribution have been reliable themes in reality television since long before the genre was called that. An early entry in this category was Divorce Court, which premiered in 1999 and still airs on both Fox (FOX) and the USA Network. On the show, real couples argue, mostly bitterly and mostly about cheating, in front of a judge, whose decisions are legally binding.
This summer, the NBC-owned network Bravo (CMCSA) is attempting to update this break-up-and-bicker formula. In Untying the Knot, lawyer and mediator Vikki Ziegler works with divorcing couples to divide their most treasured assets. Clad in bright monochrome sheaths and brandishing a blowout like a warrior’s headdress, Ziegler spends 30 minutes each week cheerily battling over jewelry, china, and a lot of really, really bad art. Her bedside manner is stern but sensitive as she calmly lectures couples in a shouty Jersey honk familiar by now to viewers of other Bravo shows. The occasional use of mediation jargon hints at her real (nonreality) experience as a divorce attorney.
Every episode is divided into three segments: a home visit, an appraisal of the property in dispute, and a resolution mandated by Ziegler. (The couple always accepts her decision placidly.) “We had talked about doing a divorce show, but it wasn’t clear that it was doable, for all the obvious reasons,” says Shari Levine, a senior vice president at Bravo Media. “This may sound odd, but Vikki really let us approach it from a positive place. And it was a way to look at a situation that 50 percent of married couples unfortunately end up in.”
It’s certainly a good premise for Bravo, which generally specializes in Screaming Shows. The trouble is, the divorcing couples don’t look as if they have their hearts in the fight. “I’m entitled to certain things!” the wives cry on script. “She doesn’t deserve it,” the husbands deadpan, with a gentle eye roll. Three of the pairs, at the time of filming, were still living together—including one Florida duo caught in a dispute over a passport that belonged to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It rests upon Ziegler’s slender shoulders to raise the drama level. “Assets are tied to emotional positions, so I need to get to the problem,” she posits, attempting to attach greater significance to a carved wooden Buddha. “What caused this breakup, who hurt who, and why?”
The couples do talk about the reasons for their divorces, but in most cases these seem to be well settled in the past. The rare glints of actual emotional torment—such as when husband Golan viciously tells his wife, Jennifer, that she “destroyed” him with her financial decisions—are jarring and ugly. Let’s get back to arguing about a small number of random household possessions, please. It’s more fun to see another husband come up with a reason whyhe needs to keep a diamond necklace.
To assign value to the objects and real estate in dispute, Ziegler brings in Michael and Mark Millea, a handsome pair of fidgety, co-dependent brothers who run a high-end appraisal business. Often, the results are amusing, as when the couple with the passport estimate its worth at several hundred thousand dollars, and the Millea brothers give it a price tag of $6,500. Very occasionally, the figures are surprising, as in the case of a pair of samurai swords a different couple, Tim and Kelly, value mostly for sentimental reasons, which turn out to be worth $4,000. Tim gets to keep the swords and happily shows them off with a hand that still bears his wedding ring.
He’s splitting up with Kelly because he’s incapable of coping with his relationship while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after several years in Iraq. “Kelly and I divorced because, plain and simple, I’m an a–hole,” Tim admits. The couple still share an apartment and quite obviously care for each other. Such a serious and complicated issue as PTSD feels out of place, even upsetting, when handled in Ziegler’s French-manicured hands.
After several episodes, you may find you’d rather watch a show where appraisers just shock people with the value of their sentimental objects without getting into the darker aspects of their emotional life. Thankfully, you can—that reality series is called Antiques Roadshow, and it’s been airing on PBS since 1997.