MTV’s ‘Are You The One?’ Reworks Reality Show Intimacy

*This piece was originally written in 2016, and was updated in 2020*

Romance reality television competitions are terrible matchmakers. These shows entertain, they’re dramatic, and at times humorous, but don’t typically lead to long-lasting real “love.” And yet, people pour over shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, and in years prior, VH1’s infamous Rock of Love, Flavor of Love and A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila. Most of the contestants seem to be on the show for attention, not love, proven in the fact that most of the winning couples usually don’t say together once filming wraps. These shows are not what we perceive as “reality,” despite the genre. In this world, filled with competitions of 20 contestants lusting over one person, MTV is flipping the stereotype of reality show love. They’ve created a show that tries to make not just one couple run into the sunset in the last episode, but ten.

Are You The One? brings ten women and ten men into a house in Maui and challenges them to find, out of the ten people of the opposite sex, who their “perfect match” is. MTV uses a dating algorithm that includes interviews, compatibility testing, and questionnaires, and then matches the participants up with the person in the house who fits them best. If the competitors find all ten perfect matches by the end of ten weeks in the house, they win $1 million to split amongst them.

At the beginning of each episode, the players participate in a challenge, and the winners get to go on a date with a person of their choosing, gaining alone time and the possibility of fostering a relationship. The housemates can only confirm one perfect match each episode by voting one of the week’s winning couples into a room called the “truth booth.” This room definitively tells couples whether they’re a right match or not. These moments are typically the most tense parts of every episode, as green flashing lights travel up and down the couple’s bodies as the test tries to establish if they’re a match. At the end of each episode, the housemates go to the “match-up ceremony” where they choose who they think their match is and sit with them. The ceremony helps them find out if there are any perfect matches, but the show doesn’t tell them definitively who the perfect matches are. If the competitors don’t guess any right matches in a week at the ceremony, or, as they call it on the show “a blackout,” they lose $250,000 of the prize money. They all win or lose together.

In the summer of 2019, for season eight, titled “Come One, Come All”, the show switched up format. All of the contestants on the show were sexually fluid, with no gender limitations on their potential perfect matches. This meant that every person was fair game, there were no longer heterosexual constraints of match. This made the game harder, but also infinitely more entertaining. My friends, and fellow members of the queer community, love this season because it’s unlike anything we’ve seen on reality TV. Honestly, most of TV.

Bisexual and pansexual people often get shoved under the rug, are seen as invisible, or “in a phase.” This season of Are You the One was as messy, dramatic and yell at the screen frustrating as any reality TV season. It was pulpy and ridiculous. But more importantly, it showed queer people as people. People who are imperfect, are open and looking for love, often looking for acceptance and a place where they can fully feel like themselves. Throughout the season, the contestants talked openly about their experiences dating fluidly, being queer, gender non-conforming and/or transgender in America. They talked about how their families have reacted to them coming out, their challenges and achievements. But mostly, it was pretty much the same as past seasons. This season of Are You the One? felt like the most unexpected, realistic, nuanced view of queer people I’ve seen in media in a long time. While messy, I think this reality TV platform was the perfect place for LGBTQ+ people to take center stage, to show that even reality TV dating shows can be queer-friendly, normalize different types of relationships and not make queer people’s experiences a spectacle.

The first episode of every season plays out like the first party of freshman year of college — everyone’s wasted, everyone’s making out with each other, and at least one person cries. The rules of the game are simple in theory: find the person who fits you best. But when you’re presented with ten, usually stereotypically hot, single ladies or bachelors, your choice isn’t going to be straightforward. The contestants tend to cling to the first person in the house that they connect with, and are crushed if they find they aren’t a perfect match. Sometimes these not-match couples exist for multiple episodes and they become exclusive. Something shifts as episodes go by and connections grow. Masochistic tendencies kick in; you begin to like the couples that you know can’t stay together. You start rooting for the not-match couples, as you sit on the edge of your couch watching them figure out if they’re right for each other or not. And so the real conflict arises. What do the not-matches pick: the attraction and love they’re feeling for each other, or the money?

While the premise of the show seems entirely simulated, some couples do come out of the show and stay together. In one of the seasons, two contestants, Julia and Stephen, were together for the majority of the season. Stephen fought other guys in the house for Julia; they waited three weeks to even kiss because she felt so strongly for him outside of a physical attraction. However, on week eight, the team blacked out, lost a quarter of their prize pool, and Julia and Stephen discovered they weren’t a match. The week after this realization was tense, the couple panicked and had many hushed discussions about “overthrowing the game.” When the contestants found a perfect match that week, the camera panned to Julia and Stephen celebrating by kissing on a counter, totally disregarding their inability to be a designated match. Eventually, as the weeks narrowed down, they decided to play the rules to win the money. They played the game, but are still dating to this day, and as of 2019 are engaged, ignoring their actual perfect matches once the show ended. While the premise of the show seems a little unreliable, couples do come out victorious, even if they undermine MTV’s set plan. This is what truly makes the show reflect reality.

You’d think MTV wouldn’t want the players going against the game rules, but they hone in on these not-match couples and their fallouts for drama. None of the “perfect match” couples from season eight are still together. Most of the season focused on the drama of couples who had developed feelings and struggled to move on after not being proved a perfect match. The original point of the show is thus undermined, and the audience begins to feel for these couples that are forced to break up so they can get the money. The most earnest moments on the show come from these emotions when the rules are broken. People end up pitted against each other and fighting, even though they’re supposed to work as a team. The fights give the audience insight to ugly, unforgivable sides of some contestants, to the point where you pity whoever their match is.

In season three, a contestant named Mike was forced to leave the show for hitting a girl in the house out of anger. In season four, various male contestants, who were mad about who their matches were, had glorified temper tantrums — punching holes in walls and breaking dishes. None of these fights felt like they had been provoked by producers. In reality, people aren’t nice all the time, and even “bad” people have a compatibility-test certified match somewhere. On Are You The One?, unlike many competition reality TV shows, contestants can’t just eliminate the people they don’t like.

Once week eight or nine rolls around and people haven’t found their matches, the group almost inevitably starts creating a strategy. Trying to figure out who the person they’re matched with is based on past week statistics instead of trying to talk to new people in the house. The show’s host at some point every season yells at the competitors, “Play with your heart! Listen to your heart!” But some competitors do play with their heart, and fail, according to the game standards.

The reality we see from Are You The One? is certainly distorted, and the audience can only see what MTV chooses to edit in. Sometimes hookups and couples go entirely unnoticed because MTV edits them out. It would be impossible to put all footage of twenty people from ten weeks in ten, forty-minute episodes. The value of being on the show clearly stems from a desire to launch a career after the show ends; but what we do see feels so raw and open you almost wonder why anyone would agree to be on this show. People stick with one not-match for nearly the whole season, and once you see whom MTV predicted him or her to be with originally, you don’t understand how it’s possible.

Are You The One? succeeds because it doesn’t succeed, playing out more like a social experiment than a game show. The drama and touching moments of the show come from the contestants going against the grain. MTV’s algorithm only prevails sometimes, as unpredictable human behavior and desire sneak through the cracks. No “Bachelor” storyline exists here. On this show the outcome is so nuanced that you don’t just win or just go home.

As twenty-somethings go through romantic endeavors, it’s a game in itself. Our perfect match isn’t standing obviously right in front of us from the start. We have to walk home in last night’s clothes from a one-night stand, or go out with someone our friends don’t like, or experience a devastating breakup and cry. We don’t like being told what to do, who to love, or what the right path is to get there. Nobody’s love story is exactly the same; no matter how many TV shows try to create a linear pattern. Sometimes we don’t end up with who people would anticipate our perfect match to be. Are You The One? is a reminder that ‘perfect’ is subjective, that falling in love has no rules, and that we can win on our own terms.

PRX Marketing Intern — Boston-based audio lady

PRX Marketing Intern — Boston-based audio lady