(Chris, season one, who would have been butt-hurt if Shandy had not picked him)
This past summer, during a month-long sinus infection, I had my husband take the baby out for a few hours while I lounged miserably on the couch, drinking cup after cup of herbal cold tea and watching television. In my search for something mind-numbing and colorful, I landed on Are You The One?, a MTV reality show in which ten men and ten women, each with a “perfect match” in the group, according to some mysterious MTV matchmaking metric, are left to live in a house in an exotic location and given the challenge to find each match by the end of the season. Each episode ends in a matching ceremony in which the couples make their best guesses as to who their “perfect match” is. Verified matches get to go to a honeymoon suite while the rest of the house works toward figuring out exactly who their perfect match is. As would be expected, drama ensues, usually when a couple with chemistry forms an early attachment, learns they are not a match, and continue to see each other. Are Your the One is hosted by Ryan Devlin, who treats the entire enterprise with palpable condescension. There's something a little dead in his eyes that reminds me of Bob Saget during his tenure as host of America's Funniest Home Videos. For some reason, this combination of challenge show, young people making alcohol-inspired pronouncements of devotion, and a host who seems to be dying inside was like catnip. I watched every episode of the first season in one day. I recently binge-watched season two and I am yet again sucked into the pursuit of true love between drunk people with tribal tattoos.
(Layton, season 2, at a matching ceremony, wearing a classy blazer without a shirt)
As a 33 year old married mother of an infant, I am not exactly the target demographic for this show. Each episode includes ample footage of these twentysomethings (all in fantastic shape, there must have been some sort of contractual obligation to work out enough to feel confident wearing a bathing suit 75% of the time) drinking neon-colored cocktails from plastic cups (and sometimes straight from the pitcher), drunkenly professing love or at least a desire to go to the “boom boom room,” a room designated specifically for sex which also, disturbingly, has a nigh vision camera. I have never watched a show like this before with any kind of interest. My only other reality show vice is America's Next Top Model, which is at least a reality show about some sort of skill. Are You The One hits a certain kind of sweet spot: it is a game, so it involves some strategy, but it also purports to be genuinely about emotion and chemistry, even if the dialog seems like overheard conversations at a daily frat house party. Sentences such as “I'll be really butthurt if Shandy doesn't pick me tonight” are uttered with wide-eyed seriousness. Some people on the show seem alarmingly checked out, staring off in the middle distance, trailing off in mid-sentence, as though perhaps there is more than just alcohol available in their Puerto Rican mansion.
(Ellie, season 2, is great.)
Like any MTV show, Are You The One? Is almost intentionally problematic on several fronts. In one game, women in the house were encouraged to match up a male name with a number of sex partners. The lowest number was 9. The highest 100. There were high fives all around for men whose numbers went well into the double digits. It's hard to imagine a similar response to the female contestants. When one woman has sex with two men in the house, for example, she is berated by other female members of the house for not being “real” with the men. Another woman beats herself up for “making the same mistakes” she has made before when she sleeps with somebody in the house on the first night. As much as the show seems to show us college hook-up culture among millennials, the guilt is still heavily gendered and casual sex is frowned upon by the members of the household. Also, it's interesting to note how often black women are left unmatched by the end of the series. Usually, they are singled out for being too "mouthy," which makes one wonder why some equally opinionated white women were still considered desirable.
Despite the uglier aspects of the show, there is an underlying sweetness. It seems astounding that any real emotion could come out of this setup, but it does. Men with sculpted brows and perfectly smooth torsos cry in hot tubs about love. Couples who form early attachments struggle with finding that they are not a “perfect match.” Inevitably, at least one couple preserves their early attachment, refusing to “mingle.” Other people accuse them of not "playing the game," though most of those protests are by people who want to form relationships with one of the coupled. So much naked desperation, so much begging for attention: it's hard to watch sometimes.
I've been wondering why I enjoy this show. Even in my 20's, I would have found the premise of this show nightmarish (I can hardly get myself to go to a party with people I like: the idea of being stuck in a house with people I don't know is my personal idea of hell), so it's not wishing for my own youth. I'd genuinely like these kids to find love. But I also wonder about the entire premise of these matchmaking exercises to begin with: can you figure out compatibility with a test at all? And can you know who you are at twenty-one enough to even know what you want from a relationship?