Dating shows are about something much darker than love

I have long been fascinated with TV dating shows. As a middle-aged dater, I find myself responding with a combination of both horror and relief.

“Well, I still haven’t found love,” I tell myself, “but at least no one is watching me not find it on TV.”

The latest dating show incarnation is Netflix's Love is Blind, which riffs off the idea of falling in love with a voice.

A still from Love Is Blind.

They might be trapped in a compound and required to seduce each other through a wall (Love is Blind), trapped in a mansion and required to make a stranger fall in love with them (The Bachelor), or they are trapped in an apartment and required to love or destroy another human (Married at First Sight).

“You must make a decision tonight, or say goodbye forever,” a host intones, as though the people involved can’t just leave the experiment and friend each other on Facebook three months down the track.

It works as entertainment, because contestants do develop feelings. It must be impossible not to. They are stressed, and stuck, and pressured, and emotions are heightened. It’s like being stuck next to a stranger on a long and turbulent flight when the entertainment system is down and the food service is stalled; by the end of the flight, you’re going to feel a deep bond with your seat mate or you’re going to want to smack them in the face.

Now imagine that flight lasting for six weeks, with cameras trained on you the whole time. That seems to be an apt metaphor for dating on TV.

The "feelings" are real, which makes the shows compelling to watch. Whether it’s attraction, anger, disgust or disappointment, the emotions played out appear to be authentic. But they also completely manufactured by the producers, which – in the age of reality TV – isn’t a paradox at all.

It can be pretty easy to elicit real, authentic "feelings" in anyone. Keep them up late past their bedtime and ply them with alcohol. Take away their phones so they can’t call their family. Interrogate them for hours on end about their deepest desires. Force them to make big decisions in a short period of time. Make them spend entire days in the company of people they dislike.

Now film it all, and you have a dating show.

Look, I think it’s fine to watch dating shows. We live in the age of reality TV, and adults who consent to be in an "experiment" should understand by now what lies ahead.

But by the same token, we, the consumer, should understand what it is that we are watching. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are watching shows about love. We are watching something much darker than love; we are watching people at times be tormented on camera for our viewing pleasure. Every tear, every moment of pain, every rejection, every humiliation, is to feed our insatiable need to be entertained.

It is probably worth mentioning that there are a few enduring couples who first met on a dating show. But this isn’t at all surprising. People meet their partners in all sorts of places. In the supermarket. At work. On the internet. On a plane. And, occasionally, on a show that is ostensibly about love.

Do these couples make the shows "successful"? Do they make all the hurt and the pain worthwhile?

In my view, those questions miss the point. The handful of love stories are completely irrelevant. Dating shows are about ratings.

If you are watching the show, then it has all been worthwhile.

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