Love In The Wild debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
There was a time less than 10 short years ago when dating game shows were a prominent part of the television landscape. The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire, Temptation Island, even oddities like The Littlest Groom—audiences seemingly couldn’t get enough voyeuristic thrills from watching the drama of young, hot, scantily-clad bartenders searching for love while cameras rolled. After a few years of this glut, however, America started to lose interest, leaving only The Bachelor franchise standing amidst the rubble of hot tub footage and empty champagne glasses. With The Bachelorette somewhat surprisingly being the most buzzed about show this summer, the time seems right for another network to capitalize on the public’s affection for televised dating. Enter NBC's Love in the Wild.
Love in the Wild is a somewhat shameless mishmash of The Amazing Race and The Bachelor, with a little Paradise Hotel bed-swapping thrown in for fun. Ten men and 10 women are paired off into couples and forced to go on adventures (a.k.a. challenges), with the winners getting immunity from being eliminated that week. The end of every episode features a Couple's Choice elimination ceremony, where the couples can either choose to stay together or ask a different person to be their partner for the next adventure. (Creepily, the winning couple each week gets complete reign over who they choose, and the person can’t reject them. It’s like reality show-endorsed stalking.) The man and woman chosen last in the ceremony each week are eliminated, basically making the Couple's Choice ceremony the most soul-crushing playground game of all time, because at least with sports you can convince yourself the reason you are chosen last is that you can’t catch a ball, not that you are completely unworthy of love. The couple who survives the entire game and makes it to the final two wins a trip around the world. Together. Here’s hoping they don’t hate each other, or else that’s going to be a long trip.
I worked in reality television back when it was just getting big in the early to mid-2000s, and it truly was an exciting time. Everything was new and fresh, networks were buying shows left and right, and people were as happy to be in the reality business as the audiences were to watch. Love in the Wild feels like something we would have been thrilled to hash out in a brainstorming session—in 2003. A show doesn’t have to be cutting edge to be great entertainment—The Good Wife is essentially a 90s drama wrapped in the culture and trappings of a 2011 society, but it’s a completely excellent 90s drama—but it does have to entertain, and that’s where Love in the Wild falls a bit short.
The mixture of a dating show and an adventure show is a mildly fun way to explore forming a relationship, and Love in the Wild embraces its premise from the top of the hour, with the host narration clearly stating “How well they work together will determine if they’re meant to be together.” They say it, so it must be true. Constructing solid, long-term relationships on dating shows is a dicey proposition—just ask the failed remnants of the majority of relationships formed on The Bachelor—but several somewhat successful pairings have come from the many seasons of Survivor. Is there a chance Love in the Wild, which was created by a former Survivor producer, has cracked the code on how to form meaningful connections on a reality show by adding an adventure element? That is yet to be seen. The notable thing here is that the show seems to believe this is a viable way to meet your perfect match, and thus their job is to convince the audience of this as well, or at least convince us the journey is going to be entertaining enough to bother. After the first two episodes I saw? Let’s just say I’m unconvinced.
One credit I will give to the show’s sensibility is that it is likely much easier to determine your compatibility with someone by going through a challenging experience than it is to do the same while being pampered at every turn. Although the attempts from the show to manufacture danger by telling the couples they are swimming in a “crocodile infested” river (highly improbable) and sending them through a vaguely bat-infested tunnel (which is obviously a very groomed and well-traveled trail) are laughable, the actual challenges themselves do bring out some interesting personality traits in the contestants and allow them to form more solid opinions of their partners than they would if they were just on your standard dinner date. Most notably, one woman doesn’t like it when her partner is afraid of heights, seeing it as a weakness; another frowns upon the man being too passive and not taking charge of their challenge; and one self-described laid-back man is alienated when his previously calm and collected partner goes off the deep end.
It’s somewhat interesting from a sociological standpoint, but beyond this, the challenges are a bit convoluted and arbitrary, very “go get three random things and do these random tasks, and then you win.” On The Amazing Race, they’re headed toward a destination and using the native things from the location to give the challenges interest. On Survivor, they’re fighting to save themselves and their tribe in sometimes brutally savage competitions. Here, they’re just sort of hoping and praying they manage to stumble to the end first, as only the first-place winners get anything of note, and the others are just afterthoughts cast to the fates of the Couple's Choice ceremony.
Beyond any issues with the challenges or the general goal of the show, there is one truth about reality television: If it has interesting personalities, it is instantly watchable. For better or worse, it doesn’t take a genius to see how the absolute audacity of The Bachelorette contestant Bentley’s assholery has held a good portion of America hostage these past few weeks. Love in the Wild doesn’t necessarily need a Bentley-level sociopath, but it is a show desperately in need of a few good personalities. This is a cast of 20 completely bland, attractive, uninteresting people that are probably better suited for a show like Blind Date rather than a big network series. Two episodes in, I could not find one person of note, and the few I do remember I do not remember with anything more than a vague antipathy. The sole standout is a chiseled guy appropriately named Steele, as he is about as interesting and smart as a steel rod. Despite this lack of dynamism, inexplicably all of the women appear to be clamoring over themselves to get their shot at him. Perhaps the politics of these sorts of shows are just destined to be something I don’t understand.
Despite all of the ways the show finds to bore us in the first two episodes, there is some potential for drama down the line. The format of the Couple's Choice elimination ceremony invites a host of issues, from stealing of partners, to jealousy, to a way to make the show an actual game and ignore the dating aspect of it altogether by forming alliances. Unfortunately, these two episodes did not even begin to exploit the opportunities those things could bring, and it’s hard to see audiences sticking around past the first episode where everything plays out so by-the-numbers you would have to stretch your imagination a long way to see all of the possibilities. Understanding the possibilities, there still isn’t enough here for me to justify a series commitment, even for a summer show. There are far too many other breezy summer delights on television these days to waste your time here.