A (not so) comprehensive guide to the world of dating shows
Drama, romance, and awkward conversations - reality dating shows have it all. The first one I remember watching was The Bachelor, a show that remains relevant over 20 years after its first episode was released. Despite its pioneer status and continued relevance, the genre is seemingly constantly reinventing itself, with something for every romantic out there.
Text: Dima Karara
Image: Rachel Kok
The Dating Game was the first ever dating show, running from 1965 until 1974. One person comes on to the show and quickly speed-dates three other people. The show takes the idea of a blind date literally, only allowing the main person to ask the others questions with a curtain separating them. They can only see each other once the main person has chosen who they will go on a date with. The Dating Game got multiple spin-offs in later years; all of them focused on dates including no emotional investment in any of the contestants.
With the start of the new millennium, there was a boom in reality TV. Round-the-clock surveillance was hot, and psychological torture on people confined in one space was booming. For example, The Bachelor has remained one of the biggest and most recognizable reality dating shows. One bachelor meets around 25 women. He gets to know them through a series of dates and challenges and slowly eliminates them one by one. By the end, he chooses one to propose to. The Bachelor just started its 27th season, having ten spin-offs without including the numerous international series.
MTV took a different approach: mass-producing short-form shows that were cheap and quick to make: less psychological torture, and more teenage fun. None of them ever lasted long enough to make as big of an impact as shows like The Bachelor did, but the genre as a whole was captivating. There was Dismissed (2001), Room Raiders (2003-2013), Date my Mom (2004-2006); and there are a million more, each perhaps weirder and more intriguing than the last. The basic premise of all of them was having one main contestant try to date someone but with a little twist on how. Although a few shows found massive success, the genre was still trying to find its footing and audiences were still becoming familiar with it.
With the success of The Bachelor being apparent, shows focusing on love and real connection took hold in the 2010s, the most notable being Love Island. A UK-based production starting in 2015, the show represents 21st-century Orwellian surveillance and late-stage capitalism at its best. The basic premise of the show is simple: hot people get to know each other in a private villa in Spain with no connection to the outside world. New people get introduced, drama ensues, betrayal occurs, couples get together and break up and so on. In early seasons, contestants having sex was either recorded on camera or at least with a mic. The show attempts to focus on the emotional connection between the contestants and aims for them to be in stable long-term relationships by the end.
Are you the One? is a similar show, except that it functions on the basis that everyone in the villa is scientifically compatible, and the contestants are employed with pairing each other off for a chance to collectively win one million dollars. Despite the surge of shows focusing on love in this era, gimmicky short-form shows still existed. Sexy Beasts goes the other route where the main contestant goes on three dates and picks one person to go on a second date with. The twist is that the three dates are made unrecognisable through heavy special effects makeup and their looks are only revealed after the decision is made.
Today, reality dating shows seem to have found a new level of success. They have an ever-growing audience, a home on streaming platforms, and giants like Netflix funding multiple shows at once. Many shows have managed to hit the sweet spot of having an intriguing gimmick while still focusing on emotional connection. Love is Blind has people getting to know each other and proposing without ever seeing their potential partners. It was the first dating reality show to be nominated for an Emmy in the year of its release. Milf Manor, the newest instalment in the genre as of February 2023, captures the essence of this era. Mother and son duos stay in a villa in Mexico and try to find love with the other contestants. Its concept turns most people off, but it's just enough of a dumpster fire to get you watching.
More and more shows focus on marriage and long-term commitment. Like most reality television: fights and scandals remain important, twists are constantly added and often drama is manufactured or pushed for by producers to add shock value. But sex is slightly less prevalent than it was in earlier years. Shows will often have contestants beating around the bush, only alluding to certain things and leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination. Only a few remain with the same raunchiness that can be seen in earlier shows. The reasoning behind this is two-fold. With their bigger budgets, dating shows are made to appeal to the masses and garner more money. They have gained more legitimacy and are held to a higher standard, although it may not seem like it. Furthermore, these shows have been tamed because of backlash in previous years. Female contestants on Love Island would experience extraordinary amounts of backlash online when shown having sex on national television. This would negatively affect multiple contestants’ mental health leading the show to portray less sex, making contestants more careful and aware of their actions on the show. Although alcohol was previously used as an instigator, most shows nowadays limit or control their contestants' alcohol intake to meet industry safety protocols that were not considered or implemented in the past. The limited alcohol use also contributes to the age appropriateness of the shows and the higher standards they are held up to, as it contributes to fewer expletives and less sex.
In the good old days
A lot of people talk about how much dating shows have changed, but they aren't so different from what they used to be. The absurdity of Milf Manor isn't so different from MTV’s Date my Mom. The Dating Game, Sexy Beasts, and Love is Blind are all just different imitations of the same basic idea. The core of dating shows has remained the same, hot people awkwardly flirting with each other. Maybe they're not as horny and not as drunk - but perhaps that's for the contestants' own good. I hesitate to call the contemporary era the golden age because it has yet to really stand its ground. A lot of shows only last for one or two seasons, as showrunners continue to experiment with different ideas: we're nearing the peak but we are not quite there yet.