Culture

THE EVOLUTION OF THE DATING SHOW

We've come a long way since the beige formality of Blind Date. Writer Stuart Heritage explores how the dating genre has evolved over the years

02.03.2020 | Stuart Heritage
 

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If you have watched Netflix’s new dating show Love is Blind, then one question has probably been dominating your every waking thought since the finale. That question is “What on Earth has happened to us as a species?”

Because, my gosh, Love is Blind is something else. It’s like a peephole into a parallel universe where the only people who are allowed to reproduce are former Jerry Springer guests. It’s like accidentally stumbling across the interior CCTV feed of a deliberately sinister religious cult. Words cannot describe how trashy it is.

It isn’t a spoiler to tell you the premise of Love is Blind. A group of men and women are placed in separate pods and told to communicate with each other by voice alone. They are allowed to meet, but only – and this is a big only – if one of them proposes to the other.

"Watching Love is Blind is like watching Marriage Story, in fast forward, drunk and on fire."

Love is Blind

We then follow their relationship as they prepare for their imminent marriage. The ups, the downs, the other downs, the downs that come after that, all the other subsequent and limitless downs. Because watching Love Is Blind is like watching Marriage Story, in fast forward, drunk and on fire. Because getting married to someone you don’t know is plainly very stupid. The finale is the biggest train wreck you will ever see, the closest you will ever come to watching a nervous breakdown manifested in satin and snot.

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Take Me Out

However, I’ve been writing about dating shows for a decade, and so I fully understand that the natural reaction to every new evolution of the genre is to weep for humanity. I remember feeling that way about Take Me Out ten years ago. Take Me Out, for crying out loud. Quaint, chummy, good-natured Take Me Out. The first time I saw Take Me Out, I was outraged that it wasn’t Blind Date. I was upset that it wasn’t slow and formal and beige; that none of the women wore flammable floor-length ballgowns; that no male contestant dared to show up in a golf sweater.

Married at First Sight

But now even Take Me Out looks like the product of another age. Because in the last few years, the dating show has gone longform. Borrowing from the bewildering stateside success of The Bachelor, series like Love Island and Married at First Sight have come along and shown that love isn’t a quick weekend at Fernandos. It’s a leap in the dark. It’s a coin-toss with lasting repercussions. It is a tightrope walk that is almost certainly doomed to fail.

Love Island and Married at First Sight – and now Love is Blind – work from an internalised belief in Happily Ever After. Mindlessly swiping through apps has hollowed us out, they say. These shows dangle the comfort and security of a long-term relationship in front of their contestants. But, at the same time, they’re also fully aware that comfort and security make for bad television.

So instead, they blast their subjects through highly intense experiences that vaguely resemble the process of falling in love. In Love Island, this is achieved by removing them from civilisation. In Married at First Sight, it’s by pummelling them with scientific data. In Love is Blind, they use literal sensory deprivation. By the end, the contestants are invariably coupled up, but their relationships will almost certainly fail because they were built in a vacuum with no foundations. And this is because these shows are cynical and gimmicky and designed more for us than their participants.

First Dates

However, this isn’t to say that dating shows are on a downward spiral. In fact, I’d argue that a couple of recent shows have cracked the formula completely. Channel 4’s First Dates and Netflix’s Dating Around are almost perfect in their execution, and that’s because they both understand the power of simplicity.

First Dates and Dating Around are incredibly similar. They document the first time someone meets a prospective partner. Sometimes it works, and the chemistry is instant. Other times it doesn’t, and we have to watch through our fingers as two dramatically unsuitable people have to grind through three courses of toe-curling small talk before they’re allowed to escape into the night. But that’s all there is to them. There’s no cash prize, no promise of fame, no compulsory holiday or arbitrary twist in the format that means they have to enter into a lifelong commitment by dessert.

What these shows offer is all that anyone wants from a dating show. They offer moments of genuine human connection. That’s the good stuff; the moments when a spark is created from nothing. Love is Blind comes tantalisingly close to achieving this in its opening episodes – when the contestants are still in their pods, it sometimes feels like eavesdropping on an infatuated no-you-hang-up telephone call between two brand new lovers – but it’s let down by the relentless batshittery of the larger premise.

"It’ll spawn even more gimmicky dating shows with even more gimmicky titles like Married at Gunpoint and Artificial Insemination Roulette."

Blind Date

It’s doomed from the outset. A show with a logline as nuts as ‘Who wants to get married to a stranger?’ is only ever going to attract a certain type of person. It turns out that this sort of person is a full-blown lunatic who, among other things, will adopt a creepy sing-song sexy baby voice when they talk to men.

There will be more Love is Blind, I’m sure. And now that everyone can see the sort of dreadful behaviour it sanctions, next year’s intake of contestants will be even more awful. And, as a result, it’ll spawn even more gimmicky dating shows with even more gimmicky titles like Married at Gunpoint and Artificial Insemination Roulette. And every time it does, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be over here chewing my fist, convinced that the world will end.

And then I’ll remember that First Dates exists, and that dating shows aren’t always a hell ride to oblivion, and everything will be OK again, just for a while.

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