Social commentary that’s subtext on Netflix’s ‘Marriage or Mortgage’

On the Netflix reality series “Marriage or Mortgage,” couples decided between spending money on their nuptials or buying a house. Netflix

Though filmed before the pandemic, the Netflix reality series “Marriage or Mortgage” feels tailor-made to our twin preoccupations of the last year: Imagining a better life within the walls of your home vs. the dream of communal celebrations that get you out of the house, where someone else is handling the cooking and serving and cleaning.

The couples featured on the show have enough banked for either a wedding or down payment on a house but not both, and to help them make a decision hosts Sarah Miller (a wedding planner) and Nichole Holmes (a real estate agent) show them a variety of options available within their budget, and then sweeten the deal with discounts or add-ons.

It’s very much the type of show you’d find on HGTV and it makes sense that Netflix is getting in on some of that action. It’s background TV. Laundry-folding TV. And watching it, my thought was consistently: Why is the decision not “house” every time?

My stance softened after talking with my colleague Lauren Hill, who canceled her wedding last year due to COVID-19 and rescheduled it for this coming December. “I have dreamed of my wedding since I was 6, maybe even younger,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to move it. I still feel like my dreams are crushed and I am sure there will be another obstacle and I will have to cancel again. I have talked to some friends who are also COVID brides and they felt the same. You don’t get excited like everyone says you should.”

The show “is a prime example of what it’s like to be a millennial,” she said. “I absolutely have to choose one or the other. Or put one off for who knows how long. Of course, this show is mostly upper-middle class couples who have the money, period, to do either, so it is biased. But I truly feel this struggle.”

Ah, the money. This is what kept me watching. The cost of a wedding can be substantial; according to the wedding planning website The Knot, the average cost in 2021 is $22,500. On the flip side, homeownership is the bill that keeps on billing. Surprise, the water heater’s broken. Surprise, you need a new roof. Surprise, there’s something wrong in your house pretty much all the time and none of this is contemplated on “Marriage or Mortgage” because that would ruin the fantasy being peddled here.

I’m always curious about the unintended social commentary that arises out of these types of shows. (“House Hunters,” I’m looking at you.) The couples on “Marriage or Mortgage” are all working within a similar budget range — somewhere between $20,000-$30,000 for a wedding or $300,000-$400,000 for a house — and because it’s shot entirely in the Nashville area, there’s a monotony that sets in, visually and otherwise. It’s just so creatively dull; I kept waiting (in vain) for a couple to challenge Miller with a $5,000 budget for a backyard wedding if only to see what kind of ideas she could come up with that felt special and unique. (By the way, is it weird that no one suggests the possibility of buying a home and then having a small wedding there?)

The wedding industrial complex preys on all kinds of insecurities about measuring up and shelling out, but “your wedding should never be about impressing other people,” said Chicago-based architecture critic Kate Wagner, who runs the McMansion Hell blog. “This is something that bothers me about house culture, too. It’s all about saying ‘I got mine.’”

Wagner got married in 2019. “The whole thing was $6,000 and $2,000 of that was my dress. We had 40 guests. It was just the ceremony with a cellist, and then a reception with Champagne and cake.” Professionally, she spends a lot of time thinking about the aesthetics of how we live, and I was curious to know what she thought about the houses featured on the show. To me, they all look the same.

That homogeneity is the point, Wagner said: “Design trends are conveyed aspirationally, whether through House Beautiful in the 1950s or HGTV now, and those things have always been working in tandem with the home improvement industry. If you can make these styles aspirational, then you can sell a lot of cabinetry that way. The sameness you’re talking about, right now it’s the quartz countertops. The graywash wood floors. Neutral walls. Open concept. The Ethan Allen furniture.”

Notably, none of the homes look workable for people with physical disabilities. If there’s another season, it would be interesting to see couples who prioritize accessibility and how that affects things like cost.

You can’t talk about real estate without talking about racism either, even if “Marriage or Mortgage” wants to pretend it’s a nonissue. But these are conversations people are having. Consider this post from a city-data.com forum: “My husband and I are considering a move to Nashville,” a woman writes. She is Black, her husband is white. Her in-laws currently live in Nashville but they “don’t have any nonwhite friends so racism is pretty much not on the radar for them. Our situation is different because I’m Black and we’re concerned that our biracial children will be ostracized.”

Imagine if this Nashville-based show attempted to tackle these kinds of questions and concerns. Tonally, I think you could do it. It would just be more honest. Then again, this is a show that films a wedding planner merrily touring a couple around the grounds of a plantation-turned-party venue. That actually stopped me cold.

“The show portrays almost this antiquated idea of the ideal American life,” said Wager. “But things are so expensive that you can’t have both, the wedding and the house, so you’ve failed in some way already and it’s almost like the producers have gamified these people for our amusement. That never really sits right for me because you’re talking to people who are about to make a huge financial decision.”

Shows like this bring out all our judgmental inclinations. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the ranch dressing fountain offered up as part of a wedding reception package. You read that right, a fountain of ranch salad dressing.

But the practical dilemmas embedded in the show are real. And tough.

My colleague Lauren said she and her fiance are worried about saving up enough money to buy a home. “It’s so much pressure,” she said.

Even so, she doesn’t regret spending big on a wedding instead. “People who put off their weddings until later in life tend to not have the big ones they wanted. But I can always buy a house!”

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