At the start of every episode of The Bachelor recap show A Beautiful Podcast to Fall in Love, Liam Mathews asks his co-host Jacqueline Trumbull how she thinks the Bachelor “did” that week. Every time, the question and its implications frustrate me. What do you mean, how did he “do”?
Mathews, (who, full disclosure, is my TV Guide co-worker and beloved frenemy) clarified in a Slack chat the sort of answer he’s looking for: “Did they behave like a decent person? And if they didn’t, was it at least fun to watch?… It’s sort of like analyzing a sports performance.”
Clearly, the bar is on the floor for The Bachelor contestants. We aren’t rooting for these people to find love, as host Chris Harrison might want viewers to believe. We’re just hoping to be entertained while they drag us through this long con launchpad for influencer gigs.
Maybe I wouldn’t be so wound up by this charade if MTV’s Are You The One? hadn’t rendered me such a dating show purist. When it premiered in 2014, Are You the One? stood out to perpetually single and clueless me for its premise: “If your perfect match was standing right in front of you, would you even know it?” In the show’s first seven seasons, producers put a group of single, heterosexual, cisgender women and a group of single, heterosexual, cisgender men through a matchmaking process involving psychological tests, surveys on dating preferences, and even interviews with contestants’ family members and exes. Armed with that information, producers then determine the most compatible match for each contestant. The catch? It’s up to the contestants to determine who their perfect matches are, and if each contestant correctly identifies their match, the entire group splits $1 million.
One obvious difference between The Bachelor and Are You the One? is that the latter creates an even playing field in which everyone has a chance to make a connection. On The Bachelor, the odds of being chosen for the final rose are so slim that it’s more viable to walk away with a Fit Tea deal than a fiancé, and that probably deters contestants from earnestly looking for a soulmate. It also deters the hopeless romantic viewers who want to witness an authentic spark on-screen from investing in ABC series. Are You The One?‘s setup, on the other hand, allows contestants to be more vulnerable and genuine in their attempts to find love, and the possible million-dollar prize almost always seems secondary to the reward of finding a partner.
“Everybody that comes on this show has an opportunity to make a real connection, so I think that’s really special,” Are You The One? host Terrence J told TV Guide in a recent phone interview.
The all-or-nothing monetary prize also helps form a community bond on Are You the One?,something that’s missing from other competition dating shows. Because every contestant must find their match in order for the group to win any money, it forces players to be considerate of others and encourages them to root for one another to find love with almost as much passion as they invest in their personal romantic journeys. Of course, that can also get messy: If a couple goes into the “Truth Booth” and discovers they are not a perfect match, they are pressured to split up and get to know other people in the house for the sake of the game and for their teammates. Just like dating in the outside world, there’s not always a clean break. Still, the collective goal tends to create a genuine spirit of camaraderie within the house that the viewers can really feel.
In its eighth season, which features an entirely sexually fluid cast, the bonds feel even deeper, as each person feels a sense of pride about representing a community we don’t often see on dating shows. Everyone — whether they identify as trans, non-binary, pansexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, or queer — has an opportunity to make a real connection with any other person in the house. And by expanding the types of contestants featured, it also expanded the dating show’s audience.
“To be completely honest, I had never previously watched [Are You the One?],” Kai Wes, a contestant on Season 8, told TV Guide. “I think, honestly, in large part it’s because I don’t have a huge interest in watching a bunch of heterosexual people do the same thing in every single dating show.”
Unsurprisingly, Wes, who identifies as a queer, trans-masculine, non-binary human, isn’t a member of #BachelorNation. “Twenty women vying for one man’s attention? No man deserves that,” he said.
But Wes is proud both to have changed the landscape of reality TV by adding some much needed visibility to the queer community, and of the way MTV has portrayed the cast.
“None of us are deemed as a trope. None of us are deemed as a one-off special. We are treated exactly like everyone else, and I think that’s the most important part,” he said. “We created this utopia [where] your sexuality doesn’t matter. We are normal people, we are just like you, and we just happen to sleep with a variety of people. We’re normal people who just want to be loved, and I think that’s the beautiful part of it.”
Terrence J, who joined Are You the One? as the host in Season 6, said it was important to him to go through media training with GLAAD to understand proper terminology and learn areas of sensitivity when working with a queer cast prior to filming the new season. But otherwise, he treated his work on Season 8 no differently.
“They are young people who are looking for love, and I don’t care about their sexual preference or any of that. I care about, ‘Are you doing the work to find your perfect match and find your genuine connection?’ To me, that’s all that matters,” he said.
Maybe you’re the type of viewer who tunes into The Bachelor simply to laugh at all the weird “jobs” and gimmicky costumes each new season brings. Or maybe you’re one of the many who have seen too many seasons of Rock of Love Bus and the like to ever buy into the idea of someone going on television to build a healthy relationship. But for all five of you who remain un-jaded and still believe that people can find love on a reality dating show, trust me when I say that Are You The One? is your perfect match.
Are You The One? Seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming on Netflix. Seasons 1-6 are available on CBS All Access.