Reality show dating: Unexpectedly old fashioned?
Television dating shows are sneaking old-timey messages into their modern offerings.
In January, The New York Times reported a new fad that has hit the post-pandemic dating scene: Potential mates meeting each other in person.
It seems that after two years of being kept asunder, singles are now craving human interaction. But even more so, they are tired of meeting people on dating apps, which emphasize physical looks and unrealistic financial puffery. Those who are…”unique” looking don’t even get in the door for a love interview.
So couples now appear to be reverting to a practice that was the norm for all of humanity until about one Olivia Rodrigo ago. Dating in person certainly has its drawbacks - wasting time and money on dates when after about five minutes you’re plotting to fake your own death to escape, the lack of options, etc.
But thousands of years of crashing into other potential mates, good and bad, have told us the traditional way is how things are supposed to work. When looks are the sole way people connect and only hot people are hooking up, the world’s genetic pool will continue to diverge. One day, the planet will be full of 10s and 1s. The 5s will be extinct, represented only in museum dioramas. (“Over here we have the flannel-and-Doc Marten-clad homo grungus, a man from the 1990s begging a girl to go see Soundgarden with him.”)
This is all a roundabout way of bringing up reality television dating shows, the mere mention of which almost certainly will send the eyes of any serious person rolling violently. There are no lessons to be learned from The Bachelor, after all, as no male outside of an ant colony will find themselves in a situation where 20 ladies are vying for his attention. (This will get even worse when female ants figure out how to be Instagram influencers.)
I am ashamed to admit I have burned valuable hours of my life watching some of the trashiest dating shows that have existed. For instance, I felt like I needed a shot of penicillin after watching Bret Michaels’ “Rock of Love,” where adult dancers routinely engaged in physical altercations to earn a spot in the bed of a bald ‘80s rock singer. But “Rock of Love” seemed like Macbeth compared to “Flavor of Love,” where one young woman decided to earn the attention of Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav by defecating on a flight of stairs.
(My viewing habits might offer a clue as to why you are reading my thoughts in a Substack newsletter and not The Atlantic. Insert shrug emoji.)
But something in the past few years has changed. While growing more outwardly outrageous in trying to lure viewers, dating shows of a more recent vintage have suddenly gotten more old-fashioned. In a way, they are representing a more sexually conservative ideal - that people should actually get to know each other before the lovin’ begins.
Take, for example, the Netflix show “Sexy Beasts,” which follows a familiar storyline: One man or one woman goes on dates with three other contestants, and eventually whittles the crowd down to one winner.
But there’s a catch: Each contestant is wearing a preposterous mask, blinding their potential beau to their looks. One contestant is dressed as a chipmunk, one as a panda, one as a tiger, and so forth. If you are a fan of sexual double entendres, you will not be disappointed when the contestant dressed as a rooster constantly refers to his chin wattle as his “dangly bits.”
When the show was originally announced over a year ago, reaction on social media was predictably dismissive. I mean, the show looked (and is) ridiculous.
But while it is obviously meant to get attention by ratcheting up the obnoxiousness, there is actually something sweet about the premise. Shouldn’t people get to know each other without relying on looks? Shouldn't a potential paramour get a chance by demonstrating skill as a conversationalist and displaying his or her kindness? (Editor’s note: few of the contestants are Victorian-era interlocutors - one young man named James who dressed as a beaver sums his philosophy up as “Ass first, personality second.“)
Of course, when the unmasking inevitably takes place, all of the contestants - surprise! - end up being preternaturally hot. The show is filmed in London, leading one to wonder whether Great Britain is filled with out-of-work models looking for air time. Nobody walks away feeling as if they have been cheated.
(The unmasking also provides an extra spark to the show - when you see what they actually look like, you will frequently jump off your couch and yell “NO WAY!”)
But the “you can’t judge a partner by their cover” theme is taken up a notch in Netflix’s “Love is Blind,” which is currently on its second season. On this show, a group of men and women are placed in “pods” and talk to each other, rotating as if they were blind speed dating.
Eventually, groups partner up (through an excruciating process where they “propose” to each other through a wall), and they are finally revealed to one another. The contestants who don’t make a connection because they aren’t appealing enough just disappear from the show - presumably they are cast into a recycling bin where they await their call to be on “Sexy Beasts.”
I kept waiting for a contestant to respond to one of these “proposals” with, "I accept! I can't wait for you to meet my conjoined twin!"
Again, none of these people are taking time off from their Rhodes Scholarships to be on the show. Many tell each other they love each other after spending two hours talking to each other through an illuminated wall (presumably, that is more times than they heard those words from their parents.)
One potential lover lures a woman with a story of how he was stabbed and almost died. Contestant Nick condescendingly lectures and berates other participants as if he is not also a contestant on the same shitty game show. Two of the women reveal they have lost over 70 pounds. One contestant, a DJ named “Shake” attempts to divine the size of his partner by asking her if he could put her on his shoulders if they attended a concert together.
(Side note: The rules about how much the couples can reveal about what they look like are unclear. For instance, one couple reveals to each other that they are both Indian-American. Other couples use codes like “I am working out all the time,” or “I have lots of Instagram followers” - a red flag factory if there ever was one. Some contestants could just say what famous movie star they most resemble and the mystery - and thus the whole conceit of the show - would be blown.)
The show actually loses much of its appeal when the couples meet each other. The sexual advances become awkward and watching people pretend to be into each other as they gasp for airtime is cringeworthy. (At one point, a female contestant has to choose whether to accept a “proposal” from her second choice - for 30 seconds you can witness her calculating whether it is worth the trouble in exchange for having her face on television for six more episodes.)
Of course, it ultimately doesn’t work out for most of the couples, primarily because a “television proposal” isn’t real, just like calling one’s self an “Instagram model” means “not really a model.” Some of the couples are horribly mismatched - for some reason, several women fight over an overgrown ignoramus named Shayne, whose voice alone should have sent any sentient woman fleeing.
Details aside, these shows are appealing because they run counter to the depressing hookup culture found on dating apps. Gone is the blind date - people who meet in person now know virtually everything about each other, and expectations for the relationship are already set. There is no “let’s see where this can go” - that typically has all been predetermined.
But that is also the shortcoming of “blind date” shows - even when the couples meet and begin enjoying their time together, the internet is always looming behind them.
Back in the day, the natural pressure of a relationship was towards staying together. If you broke up with a person, you’d never know who your next option was - where on earth would I meet someone? At a bar? At the grocery store? Your friend group was always pretty small - it was a shallow pool from which to fish for mates.
But now that pool is an ocean. With the internet, your dating pool is the entire world.
And you can see this as the couples sit across from each other. The men are likely thinking, “sure she’s great, but is she better than the next dozen women I can hit up on Tinder?” Before, partners were in competition with loneliness. Now they are in competition with literally every other person in the world.
So maybe dating shows won’t bring back the days of lengthy courtships and long-term relationships. With the internet hiding like a snake in the grass, couples will always know what they are missing out on.
But at the very least, their popularity speaks to something people have been missing. People who are now venturing back to bars and restaurants to meet other people on a level that is less superficial.
People, in other words, looking for ass well behind personality.
ALSO: As long as we’re on popular culture reflecting the desires of the real world, I have to mention a recent cinematic masterpiece that has hit local movie theaters.
I will admit I am not afraid of a good Italian or French new wave flick. I am a Criterion Channel subscriber, and frequently try to catch the works of Bunuel, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, and the like.
But an all-time classic film is currently in circulation and not getting the respect it deserves.
I am talking, of course, about “Jackass Forever.”
In a sense, the film cheats from beginning to end. Nothing is funnier than a guy getting hit in the testicles and collapsing in pain. And it happens in the movie again and again and again and again and again and again. (And it never ceases to be hilarious.)
But there is more that risible jewel-punching going on in the movie. For one, audiences are treated to a throwback-type of movie where real actors and real stunt people face actual danger for their decisions. Nothing is more exciting on film than to see a real person in a real moment of peril - every frame of the Jackass franchise is more genuine than anything audiences will see in CGI-drenched superhero movies, where an actor is clearly fighting computer-generate bad guys.
I have always thought there would be a market for movies that label themselves special-effect free. Where real people do real stunts. Go back and watch a Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or Harold Lloyd movie and marvel and the sophistication of the stunts, the hilarity of the gags, and the real harm that could befall the actors if things were to go wrong. It is exhilarating.
But aside from the visceral appeal of Jackass, it also displays a more old-fashioned concept: male friendship.
In days where young boys sit on computers, wearing headsets, and living in virtual reality, the Jackass guys show what it’s like to have a group of buddies, hanging out, getting into adventures, and taunting each other mercilessly. (I mean, they all laugh uncontrollably when one of their friends is fitted with a jock strap of bees and another guy has honey poured down his underwear in the presence of a bear.)
Some of society’s greatest moments originate from a bunch of guys, bored out of their minds, getting into trouble. In my fraternity house in college, we were all broke, so we spent weeks at a time arguing over total nonsense. One particular debate over whether football or hockey was more violent lasted a solid year - The only time I actually went to the library in college was to research the force hockey players hit each other with when traveling at full speed on skates.
We also had a long living room in our house, so we invented a game with the non-cryptic name “Hit A Guy In the Ass With a Racquetball.” The rules were simple - one guy stood at one end of the room, while another guy fired a racquetball at his ass. If you missed, and if the ball hit the metal upright heater just right, it would carom all the way back to the pitcher, in which case you would get a BONUS BALL.
Negotiations to make “Hit A Guy In the Ass With a Racquetball” an Olympic sport are ongoing.
In fairness, idle male minds have produced some of our worst moments, too, such as when a cadre of dudes thought, “maybe the Vice President can actually overturn an election.”
But there is no feeling like hanging with a group of guys, knowing that whatever torture you inflict on each other, everyone has your back and everything will be alright in the end. People who play sports know this feeling - retired NBA and NFL players always say the thing they miss the most is the camaraderie of the locker room.
And nothing captures that feeling like a bunch of tattooed morons filming themselves pummeling each other in the nuts.
FINALLY: If you haven’t seen the Ramones Live at the Rainbow video from 1977, stop what you are doing and watch it now. It’s from a trip to England, where every British punk rockerthe source for their “It’s Alive” album and it shreds from beginning to end:
This one warms the cockles of my Gen-X heart: “The 5s will be extinct, represented only in museum dioramas. (Over here we have the flannel-and-Doc Marten-clad homo grungus, a man from the 1990s begging a girl to go see Soundgarden with him.’)”