Reality TV producers have a fine line to walk: the narrative tension of the show more often than not demands their careful behinds-the-scenes orchestration, but when the machinations are too obvious, the drama falls flat. The most transcendental shows fall somewhere in the middle, from Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Potomac to Netflix’s Love Is Blind. While both feature their share of producer-built scaffolding (the latter certainly more obviously than the former), the action is still largely driven by the characters themselves—or at least maintains the illusion of it. As streaming services start to produce more and more reality television shows, infringing on what was once the province of network television, constant innovation and the pressing need for increasingly dramatic spectacle has come at the cost of that fine balance, which few new shows manage to strike. That makes the deft hands behind HBO Max’s 12 Dates of Christmas all the more brilliant.
Billed as a “holiday rom-com come to life,” the show follows a familiar script: Three beautiful yet perpetually single leads are whisked away to a castle somewhere in Austria, where their only goal is to find a date to bring home for the holidays. Two of the leads, Faith and Chad, are straight while the third, Garrett, is gay. As the clock ticks down, love interests are introduced into the increasingly crowded castle until each lead is juggling between two and four potential paramours. The deceptively simple premise manages to be revelatory in a genre that’s largely run out of ideas.
Reality TV dating shows typically fall into two camps. There’s the free-for-all show like ITV’s Love Island or MTV’s Are You the One, the incentives of which typically have less to do with finding true love than with a significant cash prize and/or free vacation. Then there are the shows with leads—think the behemoth Bachelor franchise—where the prize, so to speak, is officially a relationship and unofficially several Instagram sponsorships.
12 Dates combines the best parts of both while neatly sidestepping the worst. The earnestness that comes along with a love-starved lead searching for their One coexists alongside the messiness of a free-for-all. As the castle gains more inhabitants, there’s a moment where it’s not entirely clear who the main characters are and it’s quite frankly delightful watching spurned love interests start pairing off with each other. (Power reverts back to its rightful place once it’s revealed that leads will be sending love interests home until they’re down to the one they’ll take home for Christmas.) And with three racially and sexually diverse leads and an equally diverse auxiliary cast, 12 Dates largely manages to bypass the retrogressive politics that have plagued the Bachelor franchise—while simultaneously guaranteeing maximal drama.
The first season of 12 Dates spans eight episodes, all narrated by an incandescent Natasha Rothwell, released in weekly groups: three this week, three on Dec. 3, and the last two on Dec. 10. The first batch packs a punch. The leads are introduced to both the audience and to each other with the usual familiar spiel explaining why they’re just desperate enough to try out a dating show. Faith has been single for five years. Chad wants a wife who’s just like his mom. Garrett grew up in Louisiana and just came out five years ago. Within the first five minutes of meeting, Chad and Faith start eyeing each other. It’s momentarily unclear what exactly the rules of engagement are here, and the pair are largely allowed to explore, under their own steam, the possibility of casting off the love interests that were shipped to Austria especially for them. Towards the end of the third episode, that exploration spectacularly blows up in their faces, when one of Chad’s love interests catches the two kissing and decides to gossip about it with the rest of the group. (One of the best parts of the show is watching the Island of Misfit Love Interests left sulking and day drinking in the castle while the lead cavorts in the snow with that day’s love interest.) The reveal nearly ruins Faith’s relationship with her frontrunner, injecting a real set of stakes in a show where the big finale—meeting family—is usually treated as an obstacle on the way to an engagement or a wedding.
In the hands of lesser producers, the Faith–Chad connection would have either been deemed verboten or the two would have been thrown together in clearly producer-created circumstances for maximum drama. Instead, they are allowed to blithely continue until the situation organically implodes. That masterful discretion continues throughout the series’ run, with showrunner Sam Dean—the mastermind behind Love Is Blind—demonstrating an innate understanding of when to throw a wrench into the works and when to step back. That’s not to say there are no producer hijinks. One of the most-used bits is introducing new love interests in the middle of one-on-one dates, so that the lead is forced to either juggle two people on one date or send someone back to the castle. Chad proves the least adept at handling these situations with any modicum of grace, so that each time it happens, it somehow gets better/worse. And there are of course mandatory group activities with more than a whiff of production about them: karaoke nights where love interests battle for the lead’s attention with terrible renditions of Jingle Bells and a game that one contestant’s family apparently plays every Christmas that includes questions like, “Have you ever been caught having sex?”
There’s also a moment towards the end of the series where the leads finally go home with their love interests and the show looks as if it might begin to stall. It’s a predictable lag: The final love interest is chosen at the end of Episode 6, and while it’s always entertaining watching parents meet their children’s reality TV partner, it’s not enough to fill two whole episodes. But thanks to a twist that I won’t spoil, the producers are more than ready for this slowdown, pulling out a canny, final disruption that produces both drama and one of the more genuine moments of the entire series. In getting right what so many reality TV shows get wrong—the invisible whims of producers neatly balanced with believable choices by leads—12 Dates is nothing less than a Christmas miracle.