You hear it all of the time: those who appear on reality television are referred to as characters, even though they are real people. It may be because they come across as over-the-top or it may simply be because they appear on screen alongside scripted comedies and dramas, and viewers like a shorthand. But for a new wave of reality dating series, a contestant’s inner character is more important than looks alone.
From Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” and ABC’s “Celebrity Dating Game,” where relationships are formed by two parties talking to each other through a wall, to Netflix’s “Sexy Beasts,” in which elaborate prosthetic masks are worn on dates, creating a connection is all about vibing with someone’s personality, not catching their eye from across the room because one finds them physically attractive. Even HBO Max’s “FBoy Island,” which does allow everyone to size each other up physically, relies on digging deeper than the surface to weed out (or inspire a transformation in) the self-described “fuck boys” and prove that nice guys don’t have to finish last.
“Personality is longevity in a relationship. Over time, that’s what’s going to keep you going,” says Simon Welton, executive producer, “Sexy Beasts.” “The shows that do go on looks are great and absolutely have their place, but personality is a fun area to explore because when two people click, that’s a magical thing.”
Both “Celebrity Dating Game” and “Sexy Beasts” are based on previous formats; the former, which debuted last month, is an update of Chuck Barris’ 1960s-’70s ABC game show, and the latter, which drops July 21, brings the 2014 U.K. series to a global audience. Their launches, along with the July 28 bow of “Love Is Blind: After the Altar” — the three-part follow-up to last year’s Season 1 of “Love Is Blind” — and the new “FBoy Island” (July 29) speak to the real-world changes that have come to the dating world.
“The technology in people’s lives is supposed to bring us together,” says Chris Coelen, executive producer, “Love Is Blind.” “But regardless of if you’re single or not, I think a lot of people would agree that we’ve lost a little bit of our ability to have a conversation in quite the same way that we used to.”
Produced well ahead of the pandemic, the first season of “Love Is Blind” created connections (resulting in — spoiler alert — two actual marriages) via day-long conversation sessions between cast members. Coelen recalls that some of the pod “dates” would be 18 or 20 hours long, which meant they had “really intense conversation about really intense things.” Doing that for 10 days allowed many of them to “come out of it feeling like they know this person better than anyone they’ve ever met and discover things about themselves that they never explored.”
“Sexy Beasts,” on the other hand, puts potential couples through a 20-minute speed date first, with one person being eliminated after that round. Then “the second dates would be a couple of hours and they traveled back together as well so they could talk to each other,” Welton says. While personalities could pop because faces were hidden by large masks and therefore some insecurities could be let go, bodies were in regular clothes (and all pretty fit), so those who were so inclined could actually still make some decisions based on physicality.
“If you were to cover the body in inflatable sumo suits, let’s say, they wouldn’t be able to do anything. I wouldn’t put out the health and safety call for the two of them [in that gear]. I think it would have [affected] the show in ways that weren’t exactly positive if we did that,” Welton says.
“Celebrity Dating Game,” meanwhile, sits three average people on one side of the stage for a few hours while a celebrity (visible to the audience) asks them short questions to get to know them. The goal is simple, executive producer Charles Wachter says: “It’s essentially flirting, that’s what the whole show’s about — and towing right up against that line of sex without ever stepping over.”
“Sixty years ago, sex, gender, identity and dating were very different than they are today, so stepping into 2021 we wanted to keep the nostalgia while also recognizing our audience is very different and representing that on the stage,” he continues. “Coming out the pandemic in particular and a really chaotic last five years, people want to find familiarity in what they see.”
For most of these shows, that means accounting for parity when it comes to who will be doing the choosing among all the potential dates. “Sexy Beasts,” for example, is made up of six episodes for its first season: three of them feature men going on dates with three women to narrow it down to one potential new girlfriend while the other three episodes follow women choosing among three suitors. However, “FBoy Island” puts the women — and only the women — in the power position.
“I think it is slightly a reaction to shows and franchises that have been very much the opposite for a long, long time,” “FBoy Island” showrunner Sam Dean admits. “We are in a woman’s world; we are changing. And what we wanted to do was [to] have a really positive dating experience.”
“FBoy Island” also has to navigate the tricky waters of contestants who may be there for the wrong reasons (“There is a cash prize involved if the guys make it to the end, but Dean says they didn’t talk about it much because they didn’t want “it to cloud their judgement.”) and women who don’t want to be judged for falling for a fuck boy.
“There are reasons why players can be very attractive to women, so we didn’t want to make it seem really bad or immoral if you’ve ever fancied a player,” Dean says. “As women, we don’t have to conform to one particular way. So it was important for us to have some people that could have that conversation and say, if they did want to get more physical with a guy, it’s all right [and] it doesn’t have to be led by a guy also.”
Like the other shows, “FBoy Island” also features individual dates and the addition of competitions designed to open people up and show their true colors. For the men, this sometimes truly results in someone who did “identify as a f-boy but genuinely made incredible connections. So that was really fun: seeing people grow up or change or be in a position where their connection is slightly different and how their identification of themselves changes,” Dean says. For the women, it became about getting to the bottom of what they really wanted and “ultimately how much are you willing to put up with if you’re into someone?”
Even as a person’s character and the connections they make with each other matter the most to all of these shows, the casts thus far are still filled with conventionally attractive people. (“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Welton. “What’s one person’s attractive is another person’s horror.”) And the majority still focus on cisgender, heterosexual relationships, relying on one big pool of cast members to mix and mingle with each other. (An exception is “Celebrity Dating Game,” which has been more inclusive of LGBTQIA-plus participants, such as Carson Kressley and Margaret Cho. This came down to having conversations about what they were looking for and then casting the contestants for their segments specifically and accordingly.)
But if looks don’t matter, should gender?
“As TV has become more niche-oriented and more and more representation is being found on TV, people are expecting to see themselves on TV,” Wachter says. “It wasn’t a big decision to do it or not do it. It just happened. Culture doesn’t make a big deal of it, and we weren’t trying to make a point; we were just trying to create a good mix of people for the show. It would have felt completely wrong to have not done that.”