GUILTY PLEASURES – Why people LOVE reality dating shows

Love is blind. But love also happens at first sight. Sometimes true love exists when two people overcome struggles and hardships and drama to remain together. Sometimes true love is when everything is easy, and nothing feels forced.

The current landscape of ever-popular reality dating shows makes the case for all these seemingly conflicting narratives — and a slew of others. Comprised mainly of The Bachelor (and its offshoots that have run for years), the new Netflix hit Love is Blind, and — to a lesser degree — the resurrection of Temptation Island and remake of Love Island, reality dating shows tell us a lot of about how we view love as a culture.

Love is messy and chaotic, pure and chaste, steamy and passionate. It happens in an instant and over time. We find love in people who are familiar, but also those who are new. Most importantly, we all want to believe in love. However absurd reality dating shows can seem, they feature a lot of people who love the idea of love — they just have different definitions. 

Such shows during their rise in the 90s and 2000s require suspension of disbelief from those watching, uncertainty from those involved, and new ground by producers, the last couple of years (and surely years to come) present something very different. We all connect online through a variety of apps; so many people video chat and stream parts of their lives. The people on TV aren’t that different from those watching, and the process is no longer as arcane.

What we see on television now is that the medium and the process doesn’t really matter. It may make for great TV, but it doesn’t make for love that is right or wrong, real or fake. Finding love on TV isn’t uncommon or really taboo. It just distills perfectly all of love’s narratives, ones we embrace in fiction and in our own lives.

Love is Blind, which saw singles date each other through pods where they could only hear a voice, had five couples get engaged sight unseen, with two couples inexplicably getting married after thirty days together. One couple that didn’t get engaged apparently got back together. Just like The Bachelor, which goes for looks first instead, Love is Blind saw a bunch of people buy into the concept of the show and follow through. 

Even Temptation Island follows the same narratives. In this show that returned after 15 years off the air, four couples are split up in a resort and sent to live with 20 attractive singles of the opposite sex. They go on dates, make connections, and decide where the lines are drawn, if any. In each of the two seasons, one couple stayed together and three split up. One of the couples that stayed together did so despite many infidelities and lots of friends and fans disapproving — but they’d been together a long time and knew each other the way no one else did. That’s their narrative. Of one of the couples that split, the male half started dating one of the female singles pretty much immediately, and they got engaged soon afterwards because it was something special and powerful. Theirs was the whirlwind narrative.

That’s what watching so much TV, and then being on it, can do. All these romances can fit easily into a Love, Actually sequel. 

The three Bachelor series all have a history of couples finding love and getting married. Love is Blind saw a pair of couples married and another series will be coming down the line. Even Temptation Island found a proposal with one on-the-rocks couple in the finale. The U.S. version of the popular British series Love Island saw quite a few couples stay together well after the show ended, too.

Funnily, we tend to get invested in these shows’ characters and affected by what happens on-screen. It’s not unlike watching a football game and feeling better when your favorite team wins. Some psychologists agree that these shows might also activate the brain systems relating to sex drive, romantic love, and attachment. For instance, when we watch a suitor finally tell someone he’s dating that he loves her, we might experience a surge in dopamine (the neurotransmitter linked to romantic love and elation). When we see a couple make out passionately, our bodies might release testosterone (the hormone connected with sex drive). And, when a couple cuddles on the screen, our bodies likely release oxytocin (the neurotransmitter associated with attachment).

They may not be true relationships, but the feelings they give us are as real as it gets.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.