Netflix began its year with “The Circle,” an unscripted competition-reality series that was more interesting in theory — as an examination of the ways in which persona plays out online — than in practice. It’s following that up with “Love Is Blind,” a dating show that reverses the equation. From an utterly banal premise about dating in the absence of visual cues, this series spins surprising human drama that’s more complicated than it might seem to have any right to be. “Love Is Blind” seems hardly to be a creative success: Its central idea is glumly obvious and barely even committed to, and, on a craft level, the show alternates between drab and outright unpleasant. But there are moments when its willingness to frankly depict human strangeness feels, in a moment of particularly massaged reality TV, thrilling.
The show starts from a premise of scientific study, an old saw for the genre. (“Survivor,” which has devolved into a race to find hidden idols on an outdoor set, still bills itself as “a social experiment.”) Hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey intone various quasi-intellectual justifications for why we’re about to see people convince themselves they’re in love with strangers they cannot see and with whom they can only communicate through “pods” wired for audio. “We all have to remember this central question,” Vanessa asks before the games begin. “Is love truly blind?”
This goofiness — the pods, in which competitors convince themselves with made-for-TV speed that they’ve fallen in deep and passionate love; the positing of questions the show is in no position to actually answer — falls away after a few episodes. It certainly had its appeals. One contestant describing to her unseen male date what she thinks will be the highlight of married life — “just, like, arms” — sums up the pleasantly anesthetizing experience of watching the demographic willing and able to halt their lives for a lengthy reality-show shoot grapple towards profundity. But the shift into “the real world” provides the show a bit of an engine that had otherwise been lacking.
Much of “Love Is Blind’s” early going had been focused on the question of genuine risk involved in selecting a mate without checking them out first, but it’s a question that ultimately matters little to the proceedings: The show seems to have been cast with the standard complement of model-adjacent young professionals. And what differences do exist — in age, in race — have tended to be sussed out already through conversation, so there are no genuine surprises in the initial reveal. What is fascinating about the show is how the choices wear over time, as with a woman in her mid-30s who, increasingly and recursively, expresses spiraling doubts over now being engaged to a man ten years her junior. That this fellow, seemingly quite mature for his age, reassures her convincingly only further pushes her to believe he’s lying to her and to himself. It’s a dynamic that feels more vividly drawn than anything on, say, “The Bachelor,” because it’s springing from real neuroses rather than visible production machinations.
Surely some amount of what happens, post-set-up, on “Love Is Blind” is produced: The woman anxious about her age gap, for instance, goes on a rant that she later realizes was the result of what she calls “over-drinking,” a classic way for reality-TV shows to ply subjects into creating moments of discomfort. But the viewer, mercifully, doesn’t feel tugged around. On “The Bachelor,” the longtime dominant force in the dating-show genre, the production seems if anything to lean away from moments of real human conflict that don’t fit into a cookie-cutter template that can be controlled. Matters of the heart are OK, especially if they build to an unrelatable sort of crescendo in time for the season finale, but more substantive conflict is, still, something the show cannot handle.
“Love Is Blind,” as it wears on, depicts an interracial couple who both assume society will be fine with their partnership and instead are met with rancor by their families — a story that is on its face unusually challenging and meaty for the genre. It also depicts the white male half of this couple performing a freestyle rap for his black fiancée’s mother — a moment that testifies to this show’s unblinking curiosity about human extremity. Elsewhere, a fight between an engaged couple, both black, ends with cruel and loaded remarks (among other things, about the quality of the female partner’s wig) that the show puts forward as evidence of character, but does not amp up or juice unduly. We don’t relive the fight endlessly; the couple, having split up and done so in a manner the show is unwilling to overdramatize but unafraid to show us, vanishes. A similar approach to contestant cruelty was taken on Netflix’s “Dating Around,” a genuinely edifying entrant in the genre. Here, most of the conflict remains at a low and watchable simmer, notable for its relative lack of jarring high points.
“Love Is Blind,” then, is not “good,” but it is something; each episode feels both structured around a new milestone and nourishing in what gets in on the margins, bits of observations about differences in race or class or age or, crucially, outlook. No one is judged here, but everyone is presented as something like a rounded and full character (if not quite a whole person); each transcends the show’s early inanity and justifies the time we spend with them. This cannot credibly be seen as an experiment in the field of love sciences, or whatever the Lacheys try to convince us it is. But as a trial run for a dating show that feels governed by human impulse and not by rigidity of format, it proves its hypothesis.