Australia's favourite dating show is back for an eighth season and we're all about to join the "journey" of a fresh set of couples. This year, there are two participants from Canberra, Samantha and Bryce, a new expert who promises to ask all the intimacy questions you were afraid to hear, and, in this COVID world, new twists and turns we never saw coming.
After seven years as one of the experts on Married at First Sight, it would be easy to forgive John Aiken if he were a little cynical about love. He's seen the worst of people, from betrayal to emotional abuse, from lying to contempt, from criticism to abandonment.
But no, he still believes in love, believes in the fairy tale. And he believes the oft-maligned dating show still believes in it too.
"Love is definitely at the core of what we're trying to do," he says on the eve of the return of series eight. "But you're going to get drama, you're going to get heartache, you're going to get surprises, because that is what relationships, what real life, is like."
Oh, the drama. There's been enough of that in the past couple of seasons - and yes we're looking at you Cyrell, Ines, Jessika and Martha - to last us a lifetime. And, thankfully, Aiken says, the MAFS team has recognised that too.
"The show had to evolve," he says. "I would say last year, more than any other year, we got the feedback that viewers weren't invested in the group, and perhaps the couples weren't invested in the experiment, so we had a really good look at the process of selection and assessment and we believe we've found participants who are here for the right reasons."
The show's also evolved somewhat due to COVID, he says, reflecting in some ways how real relationships have had to change over the past 12 months.
"The way we've involved family and friends who couldn't travel is very clever," he says. When I ask if they just locked the couples away in the same room, with only one daily outing to buy toilet paper, for 14 days, the answer is no.
"But we've got a few different things you haven't seen before, a confessions week, an intimacy week, a couple's retreat where we let them out of the bubble, we've mixed things up a bit and I think viewers will like it."
Mel Schilling returns to the expert panel alongside him and they'll be joined this year by Puerto Rican clinical sexologist Alessandra Rampolla who replaces Trish Stratford. For those of us who cringed every time Stratford asked a couple if they had been intimate, expect Rampolla to spice things up even more, Aiken says.
"Alessandra really homes in on sex and intimacy in a way we never have before."
While it's easy to dismiss Married at First Sight as mindless entertainment, Aiken is hopeful that people can learn something from the show, both singles and couples alike.
"You've only got to watch the show for 10 minutes to know why these people are single," he says. "What is it that they've been doing in their past that holds them back, you can see it, because when you put people in a relationship they go back to their default position. The challenge is, can they overhaul this in such a short time, can they fall in love and do things differently?
"I hope singles, and couples, watch and think about what it is that they need to change. I want people who are looking for love to stay hopeful but the important thing is to let go of patterns that are holding you back. If you've always gone after a certain type of person and it's not working, stop doing that, if you're working long hours, find some balance, you've got to give yourself the best chance you can and that means looking at your lifestyle and changing things."
Canberra mum and property developer Samantha Harvey is more than ready for season eight of Married at First Sight to hit the small screen from tomorrow night.
She will be the first Canberra bride to appear on the hit reality TV show in which strangers marry as soon as they meet, matched by experts in life and love.
"I don't really have nerves because I know I was myself the whole way through," she says.
The former hairdresser, from Weston Creek, is bubbly and full of life, a million miles from the dark days of her attempted suicide in mid-2016. Fully aware her private life would be laid bare, Samantha refused to whitewash the battles that had led to her now being a strong, independent woman and mum to two beautiful boys.
She was given the option to take down posts about her mental health struggles before the show - and its associated social media - went live. But she didn't want to hide what she had been through, not least because asking for help in the depths of her despair only made her realise she was not alone.
"The fact I went through those struggles is the only reason I'm sitting here today, doing as well as I've done. It kicked my arse into line," she says.
"I mean, waking up in hospital after an attempted suicide, and realising, 'Shit, I could have been in a box underneath the ground right now ... I've got another chance, let's absolutely annihilate it'. I'm very, very open about everything so I've decided to be open about my past as well."
A "bit of a bogan country girl" originally from Eden on the far South Coast, Samantha moved to Canberra at the age of 17.
"I actually moved here the day after I got my P-plates to continue my hairdressing apprenticeship. I started it in Eden and I didn't want to do perms and sets anymore. I moved myself in my little Lancer and it was actually the first time I'd ever driven through traffic lights," she says with a laugh.
After her suicide attempt, Samantha opened her own salon in Narrabundah - called Kovu (meaning "scar"). But she was also developing her passion for renovating and selling houses and buying blocks and sub-dividing them for sale.
The property development eventually took over the hairdressing and she sold the salon more than a year ago. Maybe she should have gone on The Block?
"This line was said a few times throughout filming but my response to that is, 'I don't need help building houses, I need help finding love'," she laughs.
A divorced mum to boys aged six and seven, Samantha says she went on Married at First Sight to find a partner who could fit in with her family and enhance it.
She and her former husband co-parent and he wished her well on the experiment. Her sons are her "little best mates" and she loves taking them camping, fishing and biking. But she just wanted someone to share it all with.
"It would be just the best to have someone go on those adventures with us rather than watch mum pack everything up and do everything alone. They're at an age where they need to see that teamwork and I'm ready as well."
While she can't say much about who she was matched with, Samantha said she had the perfect wedding at The Grounds of Alexandria in Sydney.
"My wedding was amazing. I asked for a country-style wedding and, I tell you what, we had roosters going off while I was being interviewed, and baby goats. So everything was just perfect. I couldn't have asked for a better day. All my family from Eden were there. I mean, they like to have a drink or two, so it was a lot of fun."
And she was happy with her chosen groom. "When my husband spun around, he smiled and as soon as I saw him smile, I relaxed," she says.
"The impression he left on most of guests at the wedding was really good. With his vows, he was just ticking boxes left, right and centre and that's all I needed to hear, that someone was in this experiment being genuine and wanting love and being ready to find the one."
So MAFS gets a lot of flack for artificially upping the drama and for producers manipulating storylines for the ratings. Did she find that was the case?
"I said when I applied, 'I need to fall in love my way. I need to express myself in my own words'. I actually said, 'Don't choose me for this show if this [manipulation] is going to happen'," Samantha says.
"And I tell you 100 per cent right now, I was never told what to say, I was never manipulated into what to say. I'm the most genuine person. I'm pretty straight up and there was no way I was going to go on there and fake anything and that's something you'll see on the show. I was myself from day one until the very end."
In the end, Samantha was glad she went on the show. Her parents own a crane company in Eden and they shared in as much fun as she did.
"There were things I got to do on that show that I would never have been able to do. And to also watch my family experience things," she says.
"My dad had never been in a limo. My mum's a crane driver and she's usually in fluros and work boots and she got dressed up. She helped me get my wedding dress. She'd never seen me get married because she didn't come to my first wedding. "
Tomorrow is also a massive day for Canberra groom Bryce Ruthven - Married at First Sight airs and he starts a new job with Nova radio in Melbourne. Until then an announcer for Canberra radio station HIT104.7, Bryce, 31, was last week packing up his house in Braddon and getting ready to drive south to start his job.
Originally from the Sutherland Shire of Sydney, Bryce moved to Canberra last year for work. He had broken up with his fiance and thought MAFS would be another way to find love.
"I was in a relationship I wasn't too happy with, to be honest," he says. "I was engaged and had a few things come about and thought, 'Is this really the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?' and spoke to some family and friends and in the end we went our separate ways and I'm not in contact with her anymore. My track record of finding the right person wasn't bang on, so I thought, 'Why not use the help of three experts and get science to match me?'."
Bryce and Samantha didn't know each other from Canberra and it's not yet known if they were actually matched on the show.
"The person I was matched with, to be honest I got the most genuine person on the experiment which was all I could have asked for," he says. "In terms of that, I wouldn't have wanted to be matched with anyone else in the experiment. For me, I guess I have an interesting run on the show, which you'll all find out about it."
The trailer for season eight does include Bryce in some fairly volatile and emotional scenes. Does he feel he was played into those situations and reactions?
"It's funny. You do hear a lot of comments thrown around that producers tell you to say stuff and do stuff, it's not true. Whatever you do, is your reaction to the situation," he says.
"Obviously, the experiment is heightened to your normal lifestyle. You're in a bit of a bubble with 25 other people and everyone reacts differently. Some people stay true to themselves and others hide. I stayed true to myself the whole way through. The me on the show is 100 per cent me."
Bryce says filming days were very long but says, despite appearances, the set for the dinner parties was not awash with alcohol.
"I think going into something like this, you have to be mentally very strong, because you're going to do things you've never faced before. It's the equivalent of doing a three-year relationship, from what the experts said.
"You're definitely not plied with alcohol. I think the most I had to drink at any dinner party was three beers. I think the whole perception, 'Oh, they go and get your hammered at dinner parties to see what comes out of your mouth', it's definitely not true."
Bryce, who is friends with Heidi from season six of MAFS, having worked on radio with her in Queensland, was a fan of the show before going on it. He says he does have "good and bad moments" on it but, ultimately, is glad he jumped in feet first.
"I learnt a lot about myself on the experiment and about other people and personalities," he says.
The only downside? He missed out on playing with his team Ainslie in the second grade AFL grand final in Canberra because he was away filming MAFS. "We lost. Maybe I should have played," he says with a laugh.
- Married at First Sight premieres on Nine on Monday, February 22, at 7.30pm.