On a Sunday night in mid-February, I hit Play on the first episode of Love Is Blind— a Netflix reality dating show that puts daters in pods and asks them to get engaged before laying eyes on each other.
Within the first few minutes, I went through the stages of incredulity, shock, disgust and glee that seem to have similarly ripped through other viewers of the show. The contestants talk to each other through a wall adjoining small rooms, in an effort to make a long lasting romantic connection without knowing if the other person is "their type." It's bonkers. It's also one of the most popular shows on Netflix at the moment, according to Netflix. I totally understand why.
Sitting on the couch, I quickly texted a few of my TV-watching associates, imploring them to also watch because holy smokes: People are crying and confessing their love for each other sight unseen, after a matter of days. In the post-appointment TV era, I needed other people to witness this with me. Now.
For me, at least, diving headfirst into Love Is Blind has been a return to reality TV I wouldn't — couldn't — have expected. There's so much strong TV these days, why carve out any of your precious TV time for something so fluffy when there's everything from Watchmen to the final season of BoJack Horseman to consume?
It's easy to argue that, despite the popularity of home-buying shows, 90-day fiancées and pimple popping, we're just not in a reality TV mode right now. In January, The New York Times found that there were more than 500 scripted television shows in 2019. And according to Statista, in 2018, 61% of adults in the US thought there was too much reality television.
Love Is Blind isn't even my first reality TV show this year, even if it's the one that underlined that I've missed the genre. Immediately preceding it, I watched The Circle, another show about building relationships without seeing faces, only in this case, players communicate through a fake social media platform named, well, The Circle.
There's already been discussion about what it means that two shows (and really three, if you lump in the Masked Singer) deal with the space between appearance and reality. It's great think piece fodder, but also — like so many others, if Twitter is to be believed — I'm here for the train wreck and mostly just that.
And it is a train wreck, but a relatively controlled one. Unlike the unforgiving churn of the news cycle, or my to-do list, I'm finding respite in trashy reality TV that doesn't have much bearing on my world. I love BoJack Horseman — it's one of my favorite shows of the past 10 years — but I don't always want a blistering existential crisis every time I fire up my Roku. I felt joy as friends texted me reactions to Love Is Blind episodes as they watched them. If you can find some levity in your life, I say lock it in.
There's territory to explore as to why The Circle and Love Is Blind seem to work so well. Washington Post critic Hank Steuver wrote that "Love Is Blind offers an almost insanely hilarious sampling of so many beloved and tawdry reality shows," and he noted that reality TV is much more bingeable without commercials. NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour also talked about how cutting commercials affects these shows' structures, making it easier to flow from one episode into the next. Twenty years after that first big wave of reality TV in the early aughts, maybe a platform like Netflix knows how to do it just right.
Thinking back to that first wave, though, I was curious if there were lessons to be gleaned from the heyday of The Bachelor and Survivor. I remembered reading a column in Entertainment Weekly in 2003, written by Joel Stein, which postulated that reality shows were a backlash to scripted TV, whose narratives had become thin excuses for linking together sex, violence and whatever else. "Our psyches don't crave the heroic scope of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, but the blood, harlots, and humiliation," he wrote, taking shots at '90s shows like Just Shoot Me and Crossing Jordan. The accompanying illustration showed people in a tropical setting frolicking around a script engulfed in flames.
As mentioned, that's arguably not the case anymore.
And yet, after spending the better part of February rage-texting with friends about an assortment of reality show cast members and their questionable decisions, I'm ready for more. The Love Is Blind reunion special drops Thursday. When it's over, I know I'll still have lots of great viewing options — dramas with Hollywood production values, niche comedies that never would've existed 10 years go — but somewhere not so far back in my brain, I'm going to also be jonesing for a little more trashy reality TV.
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