The scene is familiar to anyone who’s watched a reality dating show in the past decade: the host stands with his arms at his back, addressing the twenty beautiful men and women in front of him at the end-of-week “matching ceremony.” Tonight, our host is actor Ryan Devlin, and he has called up to the plate a charmingly boyish frat-type named Anthony.
“Tell me about what’s going on with Jenni,” says Ryan with the sympathetic gravitas required of his position. Anthony blushes, hesitates. From the crowd behind him, a gleeful voice:
“I gave him head, Ryan!”
A chorus of hoots and laughter erupts. The interruption comes from Jenni, a fresh-faced blonde with a girl-next-door sensibility. She grins like a lioness over the applause.
Welcome to Are You The One?, the most sex-positive show in reality television, and maybe even television in general.
Here’s the setup: ten men and ten women are sent to live in an isolated mansion in the tropics. Through an extensive interview and psychological testing process, they have been paired into Perfect Matches: scientifically compatible couples. They, however, do not know any of the pairings (neither does the audience). The gang is given ten chances over ten weeks to match themselves up correctly. Ten matches wins them one million dollars (split twenty ways). Anything less and they go home empty-handed.
The game itself is tightly designed. After each attempted match-up, the group learns how many pairs were correctly matched, but not who the magic couples were. If you’re trying to do the math, let me spare you the headache: there are 3,628,800 possible match-ups to choose from (a factorial of 10, in other words, but it’s worth really laying out the enormity of the number). This season actually features a 21st “extra” player, which complicates the numbers even further, but for the purposes of this article I’ll focus on the game’s most basic form.
To ease the burden of this overwhelming numerical improbability, each week presents the opportunity for a Truth Booth: a chance for any one pair to learn definitively if they are or are not a Perfect Match. If matched, they are removed from game play and sent to the Honeymoon Suite. If not, it’s back to the trenches. So far in Are You the One history, there have only been four successful Truth Booths (out of about 20 attempts over two seasons).
If the odds still seem absurd (and they are), note this: last season’s group won in nine weeks, with most of the matches pursuing serious romantic intent. Whether any of the couples have lasted is another story, but we have had a wedding and a baby on the way. In other words, not only does the system work, but the matchmaking process is fairly on-point as well.
So let’s get back to the matching ceremony. Anthony and Jenni found out last week that they are not a Perfect Match, and so they do not intend to continue dating. But that didn’t stop them from messing around as a last hoorah–and yes, we even got to watch the initiation of the oral sex Jenni so proudly claimed.
Why is this important? From a certain (probably the most common) viewpoint, this is just another trashy reality show filled with desperate singles clamoring for their fifteen minutes of fame. We’ve seen it all already, haven’t we? Not only with The Bachelor, but Flavor of Love, Dating Naked, Joe Millionaire, and a billion other iterations of shock-bait, drama-filled “reality” TV that still fuels SNL’s best parodies.
But looking closer at Are You The One, it’s clear that this show is doing something different. While other shows follow rigid film structures that happily blur the line between “reality” and “scripted,” AYTO’s production has a very laissez-faire attitude. With the game’s parameters established, the players are more or less left to their own devices. The result is a loose, unpredictable, and surprisingly organic dating process.
A lot of weight has been put on the so-called “hook-up culture” of the Millennial generation: the way many twenty-somethings today treat casual, non-committal sex as the norm against the more formal dating culture of the generation before. Whether or not you buy into this generalization of American youth, few pop products have managed to realistically, let alone positively, represent 21st century hook-up culture. In sitcom television this year we had the smug and oversexed Mixology and the slut-shamey Undateable, both of which villainized and condescended to hookup culture even as they participated in it. Film hasn’t fared better. That Awkward Moment was dismal, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s attempted breakdown of modern dating in Don Jon was embarrassing at best, sexist at worst.
And then we’ve got Are You The One, a barely-on-the-radar reality show from MTV, which takes all of these fictionalizations of Millennials and spits on them. AYTO is populated with real Millennials, and gives them the opportunity to date in a realistic, if technically unnatural, social scene. Watching the show can sometimes feel like studying gorillas in a nature preserve; the control over the environment can only extend so far when you’re working with live animals.
Faced with ten attractive members of the opposite sex and the knowledge that one of them is their soulmate, the cast of AYTO adopts a logical and thoroughly Millenial strategy: they follow their hearts, genitals, and tequila shots toward the people they most want to connect with. The result is an eager, sloppy, sincere, and extraordinarily relatable mess. They hook up. They break up. There are love triangles. There are friendzones. There are couples who fall in love despite being definitively Not a Match. There are Perfect Matches that enter the Honeymoon Suite dejected, pining for their real crushes still in the game. In one of my favorite moments from last season, Chris hitchhikes back to the main house from the Honeymoon Suite to reunite with Shanley, the girl he fell in love with despite being determined Not a Match in the first week. The cameras don’t catch Chris’s rulebreaking until after the fact, further pulling back the curtain between “reality” and “show.”
The house itself is set up to maximize these hookups. The “bedroom” consists of a room floored with mattresses, and the only private space is a designated Boom Boom Room. The players are left to their own devices and unlimited alcohol twenty-three hours a day, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the show is how unabashed the producers are about showing the extent of the drinking. Other shows, like The Bachelor, also allow their contestants to get ripped, but it’s usually only implied, and drunkenness is played off as “drama.” It’s the alcohol consumption in AYTO that is perhaps the most realistic reflection of Millennial and hookup culture in general.
And that’s not to say that everyone on the show is a boozing floozy. Some cast members sleep around, some don’t. Some are virgins. The difference is that on AYTO, there is no hedging around the sex, no subtleties or scandals or wink-winking because it’s all right out there on the table. Remember in the last season of The Bachelor when Clare was condemned for just the barest implication that she had sex with Juan Pablo? The “scandal” was so shrouded in double-speak and sex-shaming that it was never even clear what actually happened. Now compare that to this forty-second clip from last season of Are You The One (NSFW):
It’s not just the (admittedly uncomfortable) blacklight Boom Boom Room camera. It’s the fact that they’re not only having sex, they’re talking about having sex, openly, with humor and confidence. Show me any other place on the reality TV spectrum that is this comfortable and straightforward about sex. I’ve certainly never seen anything like this before.
The oft-repeated tagline for the players on Are You The One is that they “suck at dating.” This is touted as the reason they have been chosen for the show. And in a way, they do suck at dating, at least in the traditional sense of previous generations. But Are You The One does not “fix” the players’ dating issues by forcing them to date in the traditional, structured sense of the word. Rather, it embraces the way that these young men and women already engage in romantic relationships, merely heightening the stakes. Are You The One not only challenges the status quo of reality dating shows, it raises the bar for what reality television can achieve. The final result is one of the most complex and compelling stories on television.
Are You The One airs Monday nights at 10/9c on MTV.