After more than a year of being told to stay home, shrink our social circles and treat all strangers like they could be Typhoid Mary, IRL dating is kinda-sorta back - and so are reality dating shows.
Premiering within an eight-day span this late July are Netflix’s “Sexy Beasts,” in which participants attempt to woo each other while wearing animal or monster masks; HBO Max’s “FBoy Island,” in which a trio of women strive to separate the nice Adonises from the nasty ones; and a reunion special of Netflix’s megahit “Love Is Blind,” in which singles shared heart-to-hearts through a wall and a handful got engaged before ever laying eyes on one another. (In the end, two couples actually tied the knot.)
Forget roses; the summer’s dating shows are collectively shoving a bouquet of absurdities in our faces.
The reliance on gimmickry isn’t surprising: In an overcrowded and hypercompetitive marketplace like television right now, memorable concepts and viral trailers, which all three shows enjoyed, are invaluable for networks. Plus, the bonkers factor reflects some of the confusion of dating in 2021, when the usual chaos of searching for love is exacerbated by the pandemic and the ensuing explosion of dating norms. When the road to romance is this hard to navigate, why not try dressing up as a panda?
Unfortunately - but not unexpectedly - these high-concept ideas don’t always translate to good TV. “Sexy Beasts,” for example, is a downright dud. Like so many other reality shows, it bills itself as a social experiment, in this case an inquiry into whether concealing potential partners’ faces will help forge a deeper connection. But a successful first date requires a careful study of the person across the table’s reactions and micro-expressions, which the heavy prosthetics largely obscure. And if the spotlight is meant to be on the subjects’ personalities, well, it’s not, because the twist is that they’re all young and hot and boring. Comedian Rob Delaney, who offers a lightly mocking voice-over narration, is the only person to offer any interest to the series. And he knows better than to show his face on screen.
The three-part “Love Is Blind” special isn’t any more fun, with the series catching up with the competitors two years after filming. There’s a sweaty high school reunion feel to the proceedings - an exhausting clamminess in the air from the “main characters’” desperate efforts to impress one another with their, uh, romantic achievements.
Whatever light mirth there was in watching the participants subject themselves to the ridiculous parameters of the game - then seeing at least one seemingly wholesome couple emerge from it - is dissipated by the key players’ status-jockeying about their wifey or girlfriend position. Off-screen drama about who DM’d whom and when only adds to the reunion’s overgrown mean-girl vibe. More quickie-marriage reality shows should be intrepid enough to give viewers a two-years-later update, but this one just feels over-engineered to start catfights.
“Sexy Beasts” and “Love Is Blind” play on an age-old anxiety turbo-fueled by technology: that we’re too shallow to pick the right partner for us. The deliciously twisty “FBoy Island” - created by Sam Dean and former “Bachelor” franchise executive producer Elan Gale - is premised on two related worries: that women can’t tell the difference between a good guy and a player, or even worse, that they might end up preferring a handsome jerk to a just-as-good-looking sweetheart. (“Do you want ... someone you can introduce to your mom?” comedian-host Nikki Glaser asks the female contestants. “Or do you want an fboy ... who you also introduce to your mom, but he’ll probably try to bang her?”) Shot on a beach in the Cayman Islands, “FBoy Island” is “The Bachelorette” meets “Bachelor in Paradise” meets the kind of judicious producer interference that makes a summer-treat show like this delectably icy.
Glaser, who effortlessly rises to the top tier of reality hosts with this single season, embodies the vengeful wink at “fboys” underlying the series. The three women - all model-types - are offered up two-dozen beefcakes, half of whom identify as “nice guys,” half of whom as “fboys.” (“He looks like a guy who has two phones,” observes one woman about a male competitor.)
As on “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” “FBoy Island” is ultimately a seduction contest, a game to see who has the most game. But here, the fact that there are multiple women looking for love gives the show some potential for sisterhood, as well as mayhem. When one of the women is insulted by an “fboy,” the others let the badmouther have it. But the women may also disapprove of each other’s choices, or even pursue the same guy.
“Fboy Island” works so well because it takes the “fboy” part seriously: They’re there to be ogled, judged and ultimately taken down a peg - at least that’s the way it should go. The “fboys” are given real opportunities to flex their flirting skills and, later, to screw the women over, in part by convincing them that love has made them give up their bad-boy ways. The final few episodes flag from a lack of character development - the show doesn’t bother to distinguish the women from one another, and most of the men get even less definition - but it’s got a mesmerizing villain in Garrett M., who keeps revealing new layers of callousness, like a rotting onion. Like many of his fellow competitors, Garrett M. has an “fboy” job par excellence - he’s a bitcoin investor. (“That just means he doesn’t have a job,” my viewing partner joked.)
With her sarcastic, you-know-better world-weariness, Glaser serves as a prod to the women to exercise good judgment. But, of course, the show wouldn’t work if they did. “I chose you because I thought we’d look good together,” says one woman at the end of the first episode - and she’s later revealed to be arguably the savviest of the three. And yet, there’s something encouraging about a show that isn’t just about whether a woman can find a man, but the right one for her.
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“FBoy Island” premieres Thursday on HBO Max. New episodes stream weekly.
“Sexy Beasts” (six episodes) and “Love Is Blind” (three episodes) are streaming now on Netflix.