Why Can’t Every Reality Show Be Season 8 of ‘Are You the One’?

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It feels idiotic to criticize most mainstream reality-TV dating shows for being too formulaic, since the formula—which tends to revolve around attractive people flirting in far-flung locations—is 90% of the point. (After all, if we wanted mystique and genre-bending intrigue, we probably wouldn’t be tuning into The Bachelorette every week.) Yet even a devoted fan like myself can succumb to dating-show ennui, particularly when I’m mired in the scalding, cranky depths of a New York summer and can’t stand to see even one more boring, hetero onscreen kiss.

That is where Are You the One? comes in; specifically, the show’s eighth season, which originally aired in 2019 and was hailed as its first “sexually fluid” run. (In other words, all the contestants were queer.) And, oh, what a season it was! My obsession with a season of reality TV that aired two years ago might sound random, but in my defense MTV is currently streaming the entire season online for free.

If my connection to season eight of Are You the One? seems obvious—I’m queer, they’re queer, voilà, match made in viewing heaven—what I truly admire about the show is its devotion to chronicling the art of queer mess. Don’t get me wrong; the premise is plenty heartwarming. As executive producer Sitarah Pendleton told Entertainment Weekly, “The purpose of this…is taking these young people whose hearts are so open, who are willing to share their life and their journey and bring their baggage and their experiences, all that, on national television—which isn’t an easy thing to do because they genuinely, earnestly want to find love in the one and acceptance.” What really sets this season of Are You the One? apart from earlier ones, though, is the sheer potential for…well…sex when anyone onscreen could theoretically be attracted to anyone else onscreen. There are scenes that might serve as genuine teaching moments to a cishet audience, such as the portion of the pilot episode in which Kai, a transmasculine nonbinary contestant, invites his crush Jenna to watch him inject himself with testosterone. But mostly everybody’s (1) young, (2) conventionally hot, (3) thirsty, and (4) eager to prove it.

For many contestants—such as the Texas-born Brandon, a former star athlete, or the conservatively raised Jordanian Muslim Nour—the excitement of being in a place where they can fully explore their queer identities is palpable. Even for those raised in more liberal backgrounds, the inescapable queerness of the scene stands out; as Kai puts it, “How many times do you put a ton of queer people in a house and just say, ‘Go for it’?” Go for it they do, to fantastic and occasionally devastating effect—there’s a love triangle involving Nour and a very tortured romantic bond between Kai and Jenna, to name just a couple of entanglements. As a result, watching the show feels as sparkly and wild and occasionally overwhelming as a Pride party on the last weekend of June. (If you recently made your way through Pride in New York or any other major city and suffered the gay cold as a result, you know exactly what I mean.)

Please understand that while I did watch the show upon its first run, it took a little bit of critical distance for me to see just how much I loved it and just how much I wish other reality shows would take a cue from its LGBTQ+-positive casting. What if we got a season of The Bachelorette that was lesbians, bisexuals, and every other kind of queer non-man all vying for the heart of one very special woman? Or a season of Love Island that featured only queer aspiring lovers and took place entirely on Fire Island? What’s taking so long, reality-TV powers that be? You better hurry up and take my gay money, because if I have to watch one more strong-chinned Matt propose to one more hair-ironed Katie, I will lose my mind. (No offense to all the Matts and Katies out there, but…really. We could use some variety!)

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