Reality Dating Shows Are Super Weird Now. What's Going On?

Commentary: Somehow, reality dating shows are growing more unhinged, and actual dating isn't far behind.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
5 min read
Two reality show contestants covered in mud, wearing fake antlers.

Love in the Jungle contestants compete to be the alpha male.

Discovery Plus

The wildest two hours of television I've watched in the last few weeks belong to a Discovery Plus show called Love in the Jungle. It's a dating show that puts 14 singles in the Colombian jungle and makes them complete challenges based on the mating rituals of various animals. For the most part they can't talk, which means partnering up involves a lot of grunting, flailing and rubbing. 

While absentmindedly washing dishes later on, it hit me: Dating shows are becoming more warped than they've ever been.

In the last few years, networks and platforms have offered some truly bonkers takes on dating shows. Too Hot to Handle pays contestants not to sleep with each other (often to no avail), Love Is Blind facilitates engagements without the couple having seen each other. F*boy Island sets loose a flock of men, half of whom are self-proclaimed F*boys, on three women and asks them to sort out whose intentions are quasi-pure. The Ultimatum gives couples with commitment issues the chance to partner swap and decide if they want to marry the person they came with or move on.

The collective chaos of these shows could be an untapped source of renewable energy. You could run a small city off the unhinged voltage of a fake voice assistant telling scantily clad 20-year-olds to consider the emotional over the physical. And yet, when taken as a whole, these shows feel like they're documenting the frenzied unraveling of our courtship rituals. 

Here's your standard collection of stats: Marriage rates are at the lowest they've been in the US since the government started keeping track in 1867. Birth rates are also low. Before you can even think about milestones like getting married and having kids, though, there's dating. And according to the Pew Research Center, about 45% of Americans who've used dating apps said they were frustrated by their experience. Survey Monkey found that 56% of adults saw dating apps as either somewhat or very negative. Daters have to deal with all sorts of undesirable behaviors, including catfishing, ghosting and the infamous array of dick pics. 

And yet, a study from Stanford University found that online dating is the most popular way for people to meet: 39% of heterosexual American couples and 65% of same-sex couples met online.

The more you think about online dating, the weirder it gets. If you're on The Apps, your face has likely flashed across thousands of screens, even just momentarily. Potentially thousands of people have considered you while watching TV or sitting at a bar waiting on a friend -- or even, perhaps, while on the toilet. Instead of some serendipitous meeting straight out of a rom-com, it's far more likely you'll find yourself on a date that feels more like a job interview.

Logically, these increasingly wild shows function in part as catharsis -- a release valve for daters who think they've surely seen it all. But they also feel like the waving of a red flag. Watching grown women cover themselves in oil and feathers and then dance around may not signal the fiery heat death of a once-powerful star, but it's surely the death of something. Yet is it all that different from hoping the right eye-catching photo or funny bio will lift your profile above thousands of others?

Line up all these shows, and they seem to want to tell the audience something: Modern daters are lacking some profound ability to connect with each other, and that manifests itself in shows where the contestants can't see each other, touch each other, speak to each other. Though those barriers are presented as positive -- hey, maybe you'll find love if you stop worrying about how tall he is -- all those activities do and should have their place in relationships. 

In a way, the relationship between the producers and cast isn't entirely dissimilar to the one between daters and their apps. Daters put themselves in the hands of a larger orchestrating entity that would theoretically be rendered obsolete if it worked too well. If the producers of Too Hot to Handle actually got through to their sex-obsessed cast, there wouldn't be drained prize pots and Hail Mary attempts to restore them by putting the two handiest players in a dimly lit, petal-strewn room alone together. 

If any of this sounds like I'm complaining, I want to be clear: I will watch every one of these shows and beg for more. My high horse has gone to live on a nice farm upstate. We are living in an age where it feels as though every dumpster fire beckons an audience. 

And none of this is to say that dating shows of yore were entirely tame. Let's not forget that in the wake of The Bachelor came Joe Millionaire (a construction worker who courted women pretending to be a millionaire) and Average Joe ("ordinary-looking" guys dated a beauty queen). And even though the modern crop is certifiably bananas, most of these shows are weirdly traditional -- largely cisgendered and heteronormative with conventionally attractive casts. The first episodes of Love in the Jungle featured the men sparring on a platform in the river for the title of alpha, while the women later competed for dominance through the age-old means of dancing and looking pretty. 

Perhaps the best way to take in any of these shows is to sit with your app of choice, flipping through the reality of grainy selfies, dead fish and puppy dog filters, and half pay attention to the people on screen trying to squash fruit by smashing into each other suggestively. 

And maybe the reason the ante's been upped to such a degree is that there has to be something more outlandish on television than the guy on Tinder dressed as Santa, smoking a cigarette, or the other one, inexplicably clutching a rotisserie chicken. 

If reality TV is some exaggerated, altered form of real life, maybe that signals there's still potential for the real dating world to get that much more warped, too. Hopefully we can leave the feathers out of it.