Most dating show confessional booths contain a certain amount of accidental nihilism. A contestant stares wide-eyed into the camera to deliver a thesis about soul mates. Their statements are almost always dramatic, effortful, and interchangeable—sentiments cribbed from clearance TJ Maxx throw pillows, monologues that have more to do with performing an idea of love than actually falling in love.
A recent crop of reality dating shows narrows the scope. In Labor Of Love, a woman searches for the potential father of her children; in The Bachelor: Listen To Your Heart, a gaggle of single musicians try to find their perfect duet partner; Too Hot To Handle compartmentalizes sex and love by forbidding 10 smoking hot singles from hooking up with each other. Maybe these setups make for decent television, but the ideas behind them are tired. Why do networks continue whittling down the chances for connection, when broadening the possibilities makes for better plotlines anyway?
It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2019, MTV pushed past these boring parameters. Season eight of the dating show Are You The One marked a U.S. television first: 16 sexually fluid contestants, all looking for love. In the first episode, bleach-blond party promoter Kari sets the tone for the season by announcing, “I’m bisexual—and I fucking love it.” This casting threw a thrilling complication into the show’s structure: An even-numbered group of hotties move into a house to discover their Perfect Matches (as designated by the MTV matchmakers). Each episode blends competition, romance, and strategy. If every Perfect Match pairs up by the end of the season, the cast wins a collective $1 million.
The eighth season of AYTO didn’t just shake up the heteronormative format of the show, but also that of the dating show genre in general. The queer season feels like the future of reality TV. Casting queer, bi, pan, trans, and nonbinary contestants isn’t just a win for diversity. It’s a win for drama, for horniness, for the first-ever five-way in the show’s history.
Like a complicated board game, the best way to learn the rules of the show is to jump in. But here’s a brief explainer on AYTO’s particular brand of bizarre:
1. Each episode, the cast votes for a couple to go to the Truth Booth to determine if they are a Perfect Match. From the outside, the Truth Booth is a grass shack. Inside, it’s a glowing science fiction chamber where “laser beams” scan the chosen couple to announce if they’re a match.
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2. At every episode-ending match ceremony, couples pair up with their suspected Perfect Matches. Beams of light shoot into the sky to reveal the number of correct guesses—without confirming specific couples. This is very dramatic. Sometimes it rains, and the droplets glitter through the spotlights for maximum effect.
3. This has nothing to do with strategy, but is essential to understanding the bonkers heart of the show: Everyone sleeps in one room, with all of their beds pushed together. Sixteen sexy singles! One giant bed! Absolutely diabolical.
4. In case you forgot that you’re watching an MTV dating show, the private hook-up room is officially called the Boom Boom Room.
When everyone is a make-out option, you get an absolute kaleidoscope of chaos: shards of sex, jealousy, vulnerability, and binge drinking presented in bright, ever-shifting patterns. The romance between Jenna and Kai is a perfect test subject. They are close from the get-go, bonding when Kai asks for moral support during his hormone shot on episode one.
Jenna has an eyebrow ring and delivers lines like, “Oh, my god, I’m being that girl,” with a light in her eyes that shows she knows that girl gets the most camera time. Kai has platinum hair and a wandering eye; he moves through the house like a horny and unapologetic tornado. After multiple explosive breakups, make-ups, and trips to the Boom Boom Room, happenstance pairs Kai and Jenna on a date in episode four. As they share intimate cocktails in a beautiful tropical setting, Jenna lays out the very valid reasons they shouldn’t be together.
“The red flags are so bright,” she says. A light rain begins falling. “You make me feel bad all the time!” The rain turns into a downpour. They lean in. They scream into each other’s faces. And suddenly, they are making out, Jenna moving to straddle Kai as rain drenches them both. It’s a beautifully orchestrated moment of theatrics pulled off by two people who are very good at being on camera. You can almost hear the producers celebrating. Later, in the confessional booth, Jenna has no delusions. “It has a spin of toxicity—and that turns me on,” she laughs.
But the eighth season of AYTO doesn’t just peddle drama. The season’s shining star is Basit, a nonbinary New Yorker who turns up in look after look in sequins and fringe. Basit does something very simple and very rare in reality television: They listen. When hunky Justin reveals he was abandoned by his mother, Basit sits silently and attentively, allowing him the space to get the venom out. The moment of camaraderie allows for more vulnerability as the season progresses; the housemates grow together, with Basit as their emotionally available kingpin.
When Basit shows up to the house’s Queer Prom as their drag alter ego Deon Slay, everyone falls to their knees: a moment of solidarity and queer joy followed by a night of debauchery. It’s impossible to watch this season without rooting for Basit. And since they are rooting for everyone else, it instills the entire season with humanity and depth.
Maybe the secret to adding nuance to reality TV is to throw Basit into every show. Imagine Basit moderating a drink-throwing conflict for the Real Housewives Of New York City. Basit absolutely slaying on America’s Next Top Model. Can Basit cook? Doesn’t matter! Cast them in Top Chef now!
AYTO’s queer season feels aspirational. Too often in reality TV, we get the same stale drama again and again. This season of AYTO feels fresh. From the pettiest fights to the most tender reconciliations, it makes space for new characters on TV. The AYTO house exists apart from the actual world’s rigid gender binary and sexual expectations. Together the cast builds a community where they feel safe to explore beyond what’s comfortable or familiar, where they can truly follow their hearts—maybe throwing a few drunken fits along the way—and be celebrated and embraced every step.
Before the final match-up ceremony, and the cast’s last chance to win, Basit takes to the confessional booth. “We have to get this right,” they say. “Not only for love, not only for money, but for the queer community.” No pressure! But whether or not eight beams of light shoot into the sky, this season is a win for reality TV—and a road map for where dating shows should go next.