The Nielsen ratings for The Bachelor’s most recent season finale (season 25, which featured Matt James as the eponymous singleton) were down about 25% in total viewers from the previous year, echoing the franchise’s ratings decline overall. While prior Bachelor seasons boasted tens of millions of viewers, more recent ones hover significantly below that number, while ratings for The Bachelorette (now in season 17) are less than half of the 16 million-plus that watched season one. The Bachelor franchise has taken numerous hits as of late, but its exodus of viewers may also be tied to the fact that so few of its final couples stay together, raising the question: Is it even possible to find true love on a reality dating series? Yes, it has happened, but instances are extremely rare. More often than not, the couple breaks up shortly after the show ends—if they even make it that long—leaving Bachelor/Bachelorette viewers searching for the point of watching those dozen-odd episodes in the first place.
And yet, The Bachelor’s poor romantic batting average hasn’t deterred young singles from searching for love on TV or, more likely, searching for fame via reality TV. The franchise didn’t create the genre, after all—that would be The Dating Game, which has been through a few incarnations since debuting in 1965, and recently made a horrifying return in ABC’s Celebrity Dating Game, with co-hosts Zooey Deschanel and Michael Bolton (who are clearly slumming it). But after The Bachelor kicked off in 2002, its success quickly led to imitators that would throw in a twist, like VH1’s Dating Naked or Fox’s Joe Millionaire (the twist: he wasn’t really a millionaire). Some popular series jump even further ahead in the courtship arena, like Married At First Sight’s matchmaking experiment, now in its 13th season, or 90 Day Fiancé’s on TLC, in which international couples have to decide on forever together (or at least marriage) before the titular deadline.
Recently though, the most interesting reality dating advancements are coming from streaming services, who are jumping into the fray as The Bachelor is faltering. This week, Netflix debuted one of the most bizarre of these efforts: Sexy Beasts, based on a 2014 British series. Going off of the premise that personality trumps physical attraction in dating importance, the contestants on Sexy Beasts undergo a facial transformation using “cutting-edge prosthetics,” changing their regular personas into that of a demon, a panda, a beaver, etc. The results are frequently downright tough to look at—or, as we dubbed them, “nightmare fuel”.
It must be pointed out that while facial features are obviously distorted in Sexy Beasts, body types are not, so the beaver proclaiming that he’s an ass man can still check out his prospective dates for his favorite feature. What is odd is how much of the contestants’ actual personalities break through their bizarre new façades, like a party-girl panda, a self-confident pixie, or a mouse that ironically comes across as annoyingly arrogant. When contestants are eliminated on Sexy Beasts, their actual faces are revealed, and too many of the dating hopefuls offer up a comment that is some version of, “Oh god, I’m going to kick myself if they’re really good-looking,” which negates the whole point of the enterprise.
A prior Netflix effort had a similar concept, but executed it much more successfully. In Love Is Blind, the men and women looking for love only communicated with each other from separate pods, where they could talk but couldn’t see each other. The relatively successful experiment actually resulted in still-standing marriages and other strong emotional connections among the group. Viewers can judge for themselves how well those relationships are going when Netflix debuts a follow-up, Love Is Blind: After The Altar, on July 28. The series appeared to validate the theory that personality is more important than attraction when it comes to choosing a romantic partner.
Don’t tell that to any of the multitude of beach-set dating shows: In the reality TV landscape, it didn’t take long for producers to figure out ways to put ridiculously good-looking people in as little clothing as possible, placing the emphasis on the physical aspects of the contestants over anything else. Bachelor In Paradise debuted in 2014, throwing the franchise’s castoffs together at a Mexican resort. Along similar lines, while Hulu is content to host streaming seasons of popular Love Island, Netflix offered its own twist on the resort premise with Too Hot To Handle, leading its bikini- and Speedo-clad singles to believe they were on a Love Island-type, libido-driven show. But the twist is the addition of a virtual assistant, Lana, who records and listens in on the contestants to make sure that there’s “no kissing, no heavy petting, and no self-gratification of any kind” in an effort to get the young and horny to focus on emotional connections instead. Each infraction results in a drop in the $100,000 prize. By season two, the contestants have stopped pretending to care about the money. (Netflix took even more advantage of the successful series by drafting season one Too Hot To Handle contestant Chloe Veitch into season two of its social media reality experiment The Circle.)
Netflix has innovated the genre in other ways as well, by stretching the relationship subject into different directions, including first impressions. In the streamer’s first original dating series, Dating Around, which debuted in February 2019, a hopeful dater has five blind dates, and only one will get a second date. It’s fascinating to watch these strangers slowly open up and get to know each other, for both good and ill. Dating Around made headlines with its second-ever episode, as one of contestant Gurki Basra’s dates, Justin, made ignorant comments about arranged marriages in her Indian culture. Gurki become an online hero when she quickly told Justin that they were having a “culture clash,” and would never see each other again, and was the only Dating Around contestant that season to not choose anyone for a second date. Maybe love really does conquer all, though: She started dating the show’s director, James Adolphus.
Dating Around’s third episode featured a man on five other dates with different men, a refreshing and much-overdue inclusion of queer romance. There have been only a few examples so far, like the 2003 Bravo series Boy Meets Boy, or Demi Burnett and Kristian Haggerty’s hookup and subsequent engagement on Bachelor In Paradise, a first for the entire franchise. (In typical Bachelor fashion, they have since broken up.) But HBO Max’s 12 Dates Of Christmas, created by Love Is Blind and Married At First Sight producer Sam Dean, actually featured a gay suitor, along with a straight man and a straight woman, who all attempt to find the perfect person to bring home for Christmas. While Garrett Marcantel was rejected by the guy he chose, he wound up bringing all of his other dates to meet his mom for his first visit home in years. That reunion was much more moving than the vast majority of Bachelor finales.
Netflix also picked up an Australian series, Back With The Ex, which followed four former couples trying to give their love another chance. Some still harbored strong emotional ties, like Diane and Peter, as besotted as ever 28 years after their first meeting, despite a considerable distance of time and miles. Elsewhere in Back With The Ex, it was interesting to see just how quickly years-old fights flared up again. In the end, despite a clear attraction among all four couples, none of them managed to stay together, because while the affections they had for each other remained, so did all the factors that pulled them apart in the first place. (Diane and Peter, who clearly love each other, can’t get past the long-distance status of their relationship, as they live in separate countries).
HBO Max’s upcoming offering is less inspired: On Fboy Island, which debuts July 29, three comely young women have to figure out which of their 24 resort-side suitors are “Fboys” and which are actually nice guys. This seems suspect, since many times the “nice guys” billed on these series don’t actually turn out to be all that nice. You have to credit HBO Max for the curveball, but, as with Sexy Beasts, it’s a pretty weak one, and the Fboys are hella annoying (One conceited contestant offers, “I know I’m intimidating to look at”). At least Fboy Island has an impressive pedigree, as it’s created by The Bachelor’s Elan Gale with Sam Dean as part of her production deal with HBO Max—so hopefully it turns out to be more enjoyable than its name/premise would suggest.
Reality dating series are increasingly entrenched in the streaming landscape, aided by a smart release schedule—with episodes released in weekly batches, so you can binge-watch but not blow through the entire season in one shot—that stokes social media chatter and anticipation. But viewers have been hooked on reality TV since the early days of The Real World and Survivor, fascinated by real-life people who will open up their lives for the camera. What we watch for are the rare, magical moments of actual human connection and honesty, like falling in love through a wall on Love Is Blind, the initial spark of attraction spied on Dating Around, or heartbroken Garrett reconnecting with his mom at the end of 12 Dates Of Christmas. The best of reality dating series can actually offer valuable life lessons as well. For example: when someone shows you who they are, believe them; what a person looks like is much less important than how you feel when you’re with them; and perhaps most telling, quit fantasizing about your ex, because there’s an excellent chance that you broke up for a good reason. These innovative takes fostered by streamers may ultimately be more of a draw for viewers than the slim chance of witnessing true love blossoming over the air.