In the first episode of Marriage or Mortgage, Netflix's Nashville-based reality show, we meet Liz and Evan, a music-loving couple trying to decide whether they should spend $35,000 on a down payment for a house or the wedding of their dreams.
Eager to help them with their decision are wedding planner Sarah Miller and real estate agent Nichole Holmes, who each get a day to spend with the couple and persuade them to make the "right" choice.
Marriage or mortgage
Sarah presents Liz and Evan with fancy transportation options for their big day (a vintage trolley and a party bus), shows them a venue and treats them to samples from a food truck. The package she's offering is out of their price range, but Sarah promises she'll make it work.
In turn, Nichole shows the couple houses in different parts of Nashville that check their boxes — generous closet space, proximity to downtown, and a large backyard to accommodate their dog. Nichole even stages a "man cave" for Evan that includes a Golden Tee machine (he's always wanted one; don't ask me why).
At the end of the episode, Sarah and Nichole throw in a few more perks to sweeten their respective deals before the couple decides to go with marriage, and everyone toasts to their happy union.
I was still grumbling to my husband about why they should've gone with mortgage (a recurring sentiment throughout the series) when the next title card appeared, set to cheerful music: "Five Months Later, Liz and Evan got married."
Nothing could have prepared me for the next line, at which point the bottom promptly fell out of the show: "Because of COVID-19…they decided to keep their date, but lose the venue…and instead, have an intimate wedding with family."
While the title cards tried to put an optimistic spin on this unexpected turn of events, they were nonetheless a stark reminder that the idea of a "dream wedding," one that has been glorified throughout cinematic and reality TV history, isn't always feasible. Evan and Liz — who wanted their wedding to be the "best wedding of all the ones" they've been to, planned for 80 guests and chose a wedding over a house (when Nichole was willing to gift them hedges, the golden tee machine, and a doghouse) — ended up having, well, a pandemic wedding.
Granted, the couple still seemed delighted with their big day. But as happy music played in the background and the next title card told us that Evan and Liz are "again saving up for a house!" I can't help but feel a pang of sadness for them, knowing that what they chose wasn't what they got.
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Every episode of Marriage or Mortgage follows the same structure: We meet an indecisive couple, they browse wedding options with Sarah and visit houses with Nichole, and they make a decision after hearing Sarah and Nichole's final pitches. It soon becomes easy to predict the show's formula and guess which wedding favors or housing perks will be thrown in before the final decision.
On the contrary, what happens after the decision is much less predictable. Five out of the six weddings shown in the series take place during lockdown; although by the fourth episode, the title cards stop telling you that we're in a pandemic, leaving you to wonder whether the couple indeed had a COVID-19 wedding.
Cindy and Karla, a wholesome pair who found true love in their fifties, did throw a "big fat gay wedding" — but the wedding date shown in their post-decision footage (October 17, 2020) and the fact that there was not a mask in sight made me feel uneasy, not celebratory.
In another episode, Hayley and Andrew are a young, Christian couple who choose mortgage; however, because they took a vow of abstinence and won't sleep under the same roof until they are married, Hayley reveals in another post-decision twist that she doesn't actually sleep in the house they picked together. The reality of their choices is far more complicated than the visions of pre-packaged happiness we are presented in Nichole and Sarah's well-furnished office.
The biggest twist appears in the last episode, during which a couple puts in an offer for their dream house but ultimately chooses wedding because they don't hear back from the homeowners. In the post-decision scene, Nichole and Sarah surprise the couple with the news that they got the house after all, and it's within their budget! The couple ends the series by promising to invite Sarah and Nichole over and gushing about their "happily ever after."
Wondering whether the couple actually followed through, I Googled them — only to find out that they have gone their separate ways. Similarly, Episode 8 ends with no post-decision scene, which is somehow even more ominous than seeing a mask-less pandemic wedding. I couldn't help but wonder: Where did the lovey-dovey couple I just spent half an hour rooting for go so wrong?
Marriage or Mortgage is less concerned with couples making the right decision than it is with fabricating a dream, because the show's very premise is rooted in the American mythos of home ownership and Pinterest-worthy nuptials. In reality, buying a house is not always the smartest financial move for young couples, and having a fairytale wedding isn't a prerequisite for a healthy marriage.
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But on the show, houses are staged to reflect a couple's dream living situations, and couples are offered dreamy wedding favors that are miraculously paid for. To please their clients, Sarah and Nichole present them with a Ranch dressing fountain, an extravagant bathtub, a helicopter ride, and even a stone with a late grandfather's favorite saying engraved on top (weirder things have happened).
Oftentimes, Sarah and Nichole foist something upon a couple that they don't truly need but can be framed as vital based on societal expectations of a great house or wedding. At the show's lowest points, Sarah and Nichole's tactics feel hollow, exploitative, and (as the post-decision scene reveals) out of touch with reality.
So, the biggest reveal in Marriage or Mortgage isn't whether the couple chooses between dream house or dream wedding, but what happens to the dream after they decide.
In most episodes, the post-decision scene wakes us from a dream and brings us back to a world where the biggest decisions we make in life are often influenced by factors totally outside our control, like a global pandemic that has forced most people to rethink their finances. And while Marriage or Mortgage wants us to believe in a dream house, wedding, and life, their episodes end with a sobering reminder that expectations don't always reflect reality — especially on reality TV.