At this point, finding a truly original reality dating TV show is about as likely as falling in love on one. There’s the long-running Bachelor franchise with its many spin-offs, including the sandy fever dream Bachelor in Paradise. There’s MTV’s Are You the One, which found a twist on the age-old concept of throwing a bunch of horny singles in a house together by featuring all-bisexual contestants. There’s 90-Day Fiancé, where hopeful immigrants have to decide whether to get married in—you guessed it—90 days, and Married at First Sight, where relationship specialists match a couple who immediately get married and then have to decide whether to stay married. Love Island, I Want to Marry Harry, Ex on the Beach, Flirty Dancing—the list goes on. Still, the era of Peak TV demands constant innovation, and with streaming services like Netflix entering into what was once reliably network-television territory, producers are hungry for more twists on the ever-fascinating spectacle of watching people try to find a soulmate while surrounded by cameras.
The latest addition to this canon, Love Is Blind, begins with a similar premise to that of Netflix’s other dystopian-sounding reality offering, The Circle—but without the promise of a massive payout at the end of it. On Love Is Blind, 15 men and 15 women are separated into separate dormitories and at first are only allowed to communicate with each other from isolated pods that prevent them from seeing who they’re talking to. The prize, in this case, is not money but marriage, which only serves to make the entire “experiment” uncannier. Produced by Kinetic Content, which is also behind Married at First Sight, and (barely) hosted by Nick and Vanessa Lachey, Love Is Blind aims to suss out whether or not love transcends such nebulous concepts as race, age, and physical appearance by having couples get engaged without ever laying eyes on each other. Missing from that list of variables? Gender. All the pairings are between men and women, and the show’s retrograde sexual politics are clearest when one contestant reveals that he previously dated men, an admission treated as a shameful, potentially relationship-ending bombshell.
At least when the contestants on The Circle declare their infatuation with people they’ve never seen, we, the audience, know it’s ultimately in service of winning a not-insubstantial prize of $100,000. When contestants on Love Is Blind get engaged sight-unseen, it’s only to allay that all-too-relatable fear of dying alone. The first few episodes are claustrophobic in how crowded they are—much like the Bachelor, it’s unclear early on who we’re meant to focus on as viable couples, so all the entertainment value comes from watching people attempt to flirt through a wall. A white contestant tells a black woman that he can guess her race based off her voice. The men do push-up competitions while they wait around for the next date. Multiple women fall for the same man and drink wine, sulk, and assure themselves that they, not the others, will be the one proposed to in the end. After a lightning-fast proposal, the countdown begins. In the span of four weeks, couples are expected to move in together, meet each other’s families, and plan a wedding. A majority of these lab-hatched engagements don’t end in “I do.”
But before real life intrudes, the couples engaged after the first stage of the experiment are jetted off to a resort in Mexico for what is essentially a group honeymoon. The first cracks in the façade of their relationships appear here: Because all the contestants have “dated” each other before, the inherent stress of a group vacation is heightened by additional sexual tension and second-guessing. That tension carries over once the couples leave Mexico because then they’re all expected to move into an apartment complex together. In many ways, Love Is Blind is a Frankenstein monster sewn together from other reality dating TV shows, combining their most dramatic aspects while attempting to replicate the hum-drum reality of a couple’s every day in the weeks leading up to the big day. For fans of the genre, it’s a delicious romp with just enough twists to keep you guessing, just enough familiarity to keep you entertained—parents meeting their child’s reality TV partner will never get boring—and just enough earnestness to convince yourself that maybe this experiment isn’t any weirder than Tinder.
What becomes clearer as the show goes on is that what will eventually drive most of these couples apart is what brought them together: the experiment. Contestants are so willing to believe in the idea that love is blind that they ignore fundamental incompatibilities that would have been made clear within a few weeks of normal dating. They ignore wildly mismatched communication styles, lack of physical attraction, and hostile families so they can recapture the heady magic of the pods. The most compelling couples are the ones whose issues would’ve existed outside the vacuum created by the facility, like Lauren Speed, a black woman and Cameron Hamilton, a white man. Theirs is the first interracial relationship that Lauren has ever been in, and I was prepared to cringe my way through a series of micro- or macroaggressions once the two met face to face. There are definitely a few moments played for laughs, like when she’s relieved to find that he has lips when they first kiss or when she asks him how he feels about the silk bonnet she sleeps in after their first night together. But the couple’s relationship ends up being surprisingly sweet, with frank discussions about the challenges their future children would face.
It’s fairly obvious that Cameron’s time with Lauren isn’t the first time he’s ever thought about race, and relatively early on he discloses that his last long-term relationship was also with a black woman. While he may have fallen in love with Lauren without ever seeing her, that doesn’t make him colorblind—he’s cognizant of the differences between them and the fact that his love for her doesn’t mean the world will treat them or their potential kids the same way. Most dating shows like to pretend that love can overcome everything, even racial ignorance, and it’s the underlying logic of Love Is Blind as well. But what the show ultimately proves is that while it’s possible to build an intense emotional connection with someone without ever seeing their face, life can—and will—get in the way.