In the latest season of “Are You the One?” MTV’s dating show on which more than a dozen contestants vie to win $1 million by finding their soul mate, viewers don’t have to wait long for the first hookup — it happens in the second episode. “I just thought you didn’t like me,” Jenna says, sighing as she sits on a bed with Kai, who (if you squint) looks like a distant, androgynous relative of Justin Bieber. He interrupts her: “Shut up. Shut uuuuuuuup.” Then he leans in and asks, “What do you want right this second?” The answer is obvious. The two run giddily into the “boom boom room,” the only semiprivate place in the house where the contestants live for 10 weeks. The rest of the house loses it, cheering and crowding around the door to listen to their muffled moans. You almost expect David Attenborough to start narrating this millennial mating dance.
I’m a voyeur, so I might be biased, but what happens next is arguably the most pleasurable eight minutes of reality television in the last decade. It’s better than Justin Timberlake crying on “Punk’d.” It’s better than Kim Kardashian’s meltdown after she loses her diamond earring in Bora Bora, or maybe even the time a Real Housewife gets so angry she slams her prosthetic leg on a table. A night-vision camera shows Jenna, sleeping in the nearby communal bedroom, then cuts to Kai, who is lounging on an outdoor bed (are there any couches in this compound?) with a handsome raven-haired man named Remy. The two flirt for a few moments, kiss and then go … right back to the boom boom room. Later, Kai crawls into bed with Jenna, who has slept through the entire debacle, and the two embrace. Although there’s definitely an element of reality-TV debauchery, those eight minutes stand out for showing the spectrum of human sexual experiences that queer people enjoy.
On this season of “Are You the One?” none of the singles are heterosexual — which is practically unheard-of for a reality-dating show, even in 2019. Some of them don’t even have a gender; everyone identifies as “sexually fluid,” meaning anyone can potentially fall in love with — or at least hook up with — anyone else, a first for the show. These contestants can’t fall into the typical paradigms of reality-dating shows because there is no precedent; there’s no male-female binary at play. The current season (it’s in its eighth) feels like a Tinder free-for-all, but unlike other seasons it also delivers on a longstanding promise of reality television: a fishbowl in which to see all the different ways people interact with and court one another.
The cast of 16 singles, all in their 20s, is a racially and geographically diverse array. Everyone has a complicated tale about how their background intersects with their queerness, one that’s often more nuanced and expansive than you get with characters on scripted television. Kai describes himself as a “queer transmasculine nonbinary human.” Nour is a 25-year-old Arab Muslim woman from New Jersey who married a man to please her family and divorced soon after; Jonathan is a queer man from rural Florida who admits to feeling uncomfortable with nonbinary people, only to have the beautiful, gender-fluid Basit help him get over it. Justin and Brandon, extremely masculine-presenting cisgender men, are so comfortable with their bisexuality it’s revelatory and myth-dispelling.
Dating-reality television doesn’t look like this. It’s generally a collection of generically attractive, mostly white and almost all middle-class straight men and women volunteering to spend a couple months in a house vying for one another’s attention. “The Bachelor” is the model for many of these shows, and though it first aired in 2002, its morals might as well be from 1902 — it encourages women to behave like colorful prizes in an arcade claw machine, vying to be “picked” over the other contestants for a shot at marriage and, presumably, love. The women rarely discuss values, politics or sexuality. They upsell themselves and downplay their competitors.
In her book, “Trick Mirror,” the writer Jia Tolentino reflects on her experience of appearing on a reality TV show when she was 16. A major plot point of her season was that she refused to make out with anyone; she says was resisting the campy, sexy teenage-girl archetypes that dominated television at the time. At least, she thinks that’s what she was doing. “I can’t tell if, on the show, I was more concerned with looking virtuous or actually being virtuous,” she wonders in retrospect. “Or if I was even capable of distinguishing between the two ideas.” Tolentino interviews one of the show’s producers and comes to realize that they guided the narrative far more than she understood at the time. Tolentino’s taping happened at the end of 2004, alongside the birth of the technological revolution that would make mainstream reality television obsolete — why tune into an absurdly premised show airing at a set time when you can watch people at any hour of the day, anywhere on the globe, on no fewer than a dozen different apps, do all of the things they might do on a show?
Nearly 15 years later, the phrase “reality TV” is an oxymoron — you don’t have to turn on a television to see real life. We have been conditioned to document our lives and comport ourselves for audiences across various platforms. Which raises a question: Is it still possible to be manipulated when we’re living in a world in which we know what’s at stake when we step in front of a camera — and we do it anyway? Part of the thrill of watching “Are You the One?” is that it feels more real, more honest. You get the uncanny sense that the contestants’ identities aren’t as mediated, because they are all used to performing, whether or not they’re being televised. In a confessional, Kai explains that taking hormones and having top surgery have made him feel more comfortable in his body. “For the first time in my life, I feel attractive,” he says. The house understands. But they tire of the drama Kai causes and stage an intervention — in a hot tub — to hold him accountable. “Multiple people are hurt by you,” Justin tells him. “We all love you and support you, we believe that you can change.”
It’s a stunning shift from the usual dynamics on a competition driven by money or fame. They’re upset not because Kai’s actions are making it difficult for them to win, but because he’s not being decent — a trait that in real life most of us value in our partners and friends but that is rarely prioritized on dating shows. My theory is that queer people tend to be more acquainted with unpacking trauma, family dynamics and identities and orientations in their own lives, often as means of survival, so perhaps that’s why these contestants are able to do it so naturally on the screen. What’s left is a social experiment that, unlike an overwhelming majority of reality TV, doesn’t leave you feeling hopeless about the future of humanity. Instead, it’s weird and complicated and intriguing — sort of like it feels to date in real life.
Photo illustration: Screengrabs from MTV