“From Hollywood, the dating capital of the world, in color, it’s The Dating Game.”
A heart-shaped spotlight trained on a yellow and red striped curtain. The cloth pulled apart and out strolled Jim Lange, host of the show from 1965 to 1980.
So began America’s long relationship with TV dating.
This was back when televisions were blocky, wood-paneled boxes. But today, I’m watching the show on YouTube, and little feels foreign to me – nothing outside the aesthetic anyway.
Of course, there’s the décor – the psychedelic splatters of rainbow paint (Are they flowers?) that seemed to contaminate every single surface of the 1960s. And then there’s the total lack of color, which is to say everyone involved is white. (So incredibly white.)
But aside from that, there’s nothing novel about the show. Not in the 21st century. There’s nothing new about the concept, or the tropes.
It’s by turns awkward and teasing. Some bachelors and suitors are right at home in front of an audience. They’re charming and sly, giving creative and cheeky answers. Others are nervous and uptight. They stutter through questions and brim with boring cliches.
It’s not hard to see how viewers could quickly tire of the formula.
So in came the celebrities…
Sally Field, Dick Clark, Adam West, Andy Kaufman, Tom Selleck, Michael Richards, Vincent Price, Farrah Fawcett, John Ritter, Steve Martin, Ron Howard, Bob Saget, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jackson and Pee Wee Herman all appeared on The Dating Game.
Turns out, it’s more fun to watch famous people pick and choose prospective mates from what might be considered ordinary* folks.
The term ordinary here is obviously subjective. No ordinary person expects to find love with Farrah Fawcett (or anyone else for that matter) on a TV dating show. Most of these people are likely aspiring actors or fame-seekers themselves.
In one especially morbid incident, a contestant turned out to be a serial killer…
When Rodney Alcala, appeared on the show in 1978, he was already a convicted rapist. On the show, he was simply described as a successful photographer. He would win. And two years later, he would be sentenced to death for the murder of at least 50 people.
“We’re gonna have a great time together Cheryl,” he intones with sly grin on his face.
“What’s your best time?” Cheryl asks.
“The best time is at night. Night time… Because that’s the only time there is.”
That wouldn’t be the last time a murderer appeared on a TV dating show, either.
In 2009, the short-lived Megan Wants a Millionaire – a spin-off of a spin-off, of a spin-off, of a spin-off – was abruptly canceled after four episodes, when VH1 learned the show’s runner-up was being sought by police in connection with a murder. Indeed, third-place finisher Ryan Jenkins had killed his wife and stuffed her body into a suitcase before taking his own life.
Surprisingly, this didn’t end VH1’s dalliances with dating shows – a long chain of increasingly depraved installments that sprouted from its sleeper hit Flava of Love, snowballed with Brett Michaels-based successor Rock of Love, and continues to this day with Dating Naked.
It’s been a long, sordid journey, no doubt… But fun to watch.
When I was a kid I routinely watched Singled-Out – MTV’s Gen-X Dating Game spoof hosted by Chris Hardwick and Jenny McCarthy. I also enjoyed watching shows like Blind Date, and its predecessor Love Connection.
Love Connection ran 11 seasons and 2,120 episodes from 1983 to 1998. Its participants could choose a partner from a group of suitors or let the audience do it for them. Then they’d come back on the next episode to review the date.
Blind Date (1999-2006) cut out the middle-man. Cameras simply followed the date around until it culminated either in the suggestion of a sexual encounter or a total disaster.
Obviously, it’s Blind Date’s disasters that were most fun to watch. When people talk about fireworks on a date they usually mean it in a good way. But when it comes to reality TV, truly luminous displays only spring from dates that crash and burn.
These disasters cast a hot, burning light on the very worst aspects of humanity – self-hate, self-pity, self-absorption, ego, overindulgence, superficiality, cluelessness and outright drunkenness.
It’s trainwreck television, where resolutions aren’t fulfilling and romantic, but rather painful and cringe-worthy.
What was really great about Blind Date, though, were the smug pop-up bubbles that would appear on the screen. These bubbles would color the experience, by shading the participants. Often times, the input came in the form of thought bubbles. Other times it was from made-up characters like Therapist Joe and Dr. Date.
This is a key element – one that I think marks the dawn of modern reality dating shows.
See, moments of embarrassment frequently arose in shows like The Dating Game and Love Connection, but they rarely had the effect of humiliating those involved. They were usually polite detours. They were mild expressions of discomfort whose spontaneity endeared the viewer to the subject. After all, most everyone can imagine being flustered upon being asked to sing a song or confess the details of a romantic tryst on television.
Blind Date was different. It put two people (albeit voluntarily) in an awkward situation. Then, after the fact, through the editing process, it provided snarky, often derisive, commentary.
It was never terribly hostile – always just a sideways glance and a “Get a load of this guy…”. And in most cases, it was easy to laugh at because the dater deserved it. Often times they acted like a legit jerk. But even if they didn’t, this is what they signed up for.
Hell, many of the people that went on Blind Date weren’t even interested in finding love. They were actors trying to get TV credits to pad their resumes. They also got paid, and in standard reality TV fashion, much of the action was egged on by producers and even scripted.
The whole artifice is fake. That’s what reality dating is, pure spectacle. The only thing real is the audience’s appetite for schadenfraude.
But again, it was Blind Date that hit on this early. The butt of the joke was no longer daters saying “butt” in a joke, it was the daters themselves.
The days of of watching TV daters merely discuss once-taboo topics is gone. Audiences long ago stopped oohing and ahhing over slick innuendo and suggestions of virility that border on threatening.
Romance and foreplay are out, humiliation and conflict are in.
The change occurred in earnest when The Bachelor turned the Dating Game into Survivor. But it really hit a crescendo with one of my favorite reality dating shows of all time: Joe Millionaire.
In this show, 20 women were convinced the bachelor they were vying for was a millionaire. But in reality, he was really just a construction worker (/model).
The highlight came when Sarah, a lawyer by day, was caught giving the bachelor fellatio in the woods at night. The camera hovered on the moonlit trees, while the subtitles “Umh, (smack), Uhm, (slurp),” ran across the bottom of the screen.
Once again: A lawyer sucked off a construction worker in the woods, the whole time thinking he had millions of dollars. It was filmed and subtitled.
Fox aired it, and the network was richly rewarded for doing so.
Joe Millionaire was a huge success, one that banked on making a mockery of would-be Bachelor contestants. The show’s audience averaged 40 million viewers, and 42% of adults age 18-to-49 tuned in for the finale – an audience bigger than all the other networks combined.
I was a freshman in college at the time and they aired it on a projection screen in the commissary.
The series ranked third in the Nielsen Ratings that year, scoring a 13.3. That came in behind CSI and Friends but ahead of ER, American Idol, Survivor, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Monday Night Football.
ABC’s The Bachelor came in at No. 16, with a 9.9.
Clearly, The Bachelor/Bachelorette failed to capture the attention of Americans the way Joe Millionaire did.
Draped in fancy clothes and wielding roses, these shows let the audience believe romance is central to the plot. But it’s really just a bougie illusion.
The Bachelor aspires to be something more elegant than it is, like a “tasteful” sex shop. It’s the old, generic, romance novel gathering dust on a shelf while copies of Fifty Shades of Grey fly out of the store.
For example, in 2014, a weeping contestant sat on a couch and asked the bachelorette that rejected him: “Knowing how in love with you I was, if you weren’t in love with me, I’m just not sure why, why you made love with me?”
And that was a watershed moment for a show that was 10 seasons deep (17 if you count the original Bachelor). Finally, the show that had stubbornly refused to acknowledge sex acknowledged sex.
That show, the season’s finale, registered a 7.5 in the ratings – about half of what Joe Millionaire pulled.
More recently, The Bachelorette enjoyed the most attention it’s gotten in decades from a character known as “Bad Chad.” Chad’s defiant attitude, bad manners, and willingness to openly question the authenticity of the medium itself actually made this show watchable and entertaining… if only for a few episodes.
Chad is ridiculous but he scored big with the audience because he called The Bachelorette’s suitors out on their phoniness. He undermined the show’s key illusion (delusion, really) that these people are being earnest in their quest for “love.”
“I don’t know yet,” he responds when The Bachelorette asks what he loves about her. “All these guys can all tell you the different things they love about you and they’ve studied about you on TV or whatever, but I don’t know.”
Then he scolds the other suitors: “You can’t be in love with her! If you are that’s weird!”
Chad is clearly trying to set himself apart as the truth-teller, but he’s also right.
Who are these saps pretending to love a girl they know nothing about? It is what Chad called “a parade of losers.”
That’s what made Chad so great… And ultimately tragic because he didn’t last long. Still, his absence was such a blow to the show that they brought him back for “Bachelor In Paradise,” a spin-off few people even knew existed prior to that announcement.
So, once more, we see America’s lust for reality dating shows that are essentially self-destructing.
And that’s why VH1 is, and forever will remain, the paragon of reality dating shows.
Yes, VH1 was peak TV dating, cranking out hit after hit, starting with Flavor of Love.
Who, if not an outdated and deranged celebrity could follow Joe Millionaire?
Why not debase reality dating contestants (and women) further by having them fight over a washed-up hype-man who at one point had a $2,600-a-day crack addiction?
Flavor of Love’s second season premiere ranked as the entire night’s most watched cable program ahead of Entourage.
It was notable mostly because a contestant literally shit on the floor. She had to poop. And she pooped on the floor.
Some 7.5 million people tuned in for the season finale.
Wanting to extend that success, VH1 followed up with Rock of Love with Bret Michaels.
For my money, Rock of Love was the greatest reality show of all time. And it’s not even close.
This show offered a coterie of shocking, amusing, and above all else, desperate contestants. But like Joe Millionaire, the man they were fighting for was something of a fraud.
Ostensibly these women signed on for the chance to date a rock star. But Bret Michaels was hardly that. When Rock of Love premiered in July 2007, Michaels was 44 years old (probably twice the age of the average contestant), divorced with two kids, and rocking hair extensions tucked beneath a bandanna. His band hadn’t been relevant in two decades.
It was clear to any viewer with perspective that this man was no prize to be won, and not just because of his moribund career. As a person, Bret Michaels could be very nice, friendly and sincere. (A friend of mine who once interviewed him, told me Michaels was just that.) But he could also be absurdly vain, thin-skinned, shallow, and self-important.
Case-in-point: Rock of Love’s defining moment came when a contestant got Bret’s named tattooed on the back of her neck in giant gothic letters. Michaels not only encouraged this but expressed physical arousel at the notion of a woman having his name permanently etched into her skin.
AND SHE DIDN’T EVEN WIN.
At the end of the show, he chose a different, far more sober-minded girl instead.
Michaels spent the entire show demanding blind loyalty, obsessive care, and uncompromised devotion from the girls competing. He repeatedly called on them to lower their emotional “walls,” to let their guard down, that he might truly connect with them and find his “Rock of Love.”
And yet, at the same time, Michaels spent multiple nights engaging sexually with those contestants that would act as groupies, but not girlfriends, only to cut them loose, as well.
His final plea to the show’s last two contestants: “Is there any way both of you will be my girlfriend?”
(Spoiler Alert: He eliminates the one that debases herself by saying ‘Yes’ – the one with the tattoo.)
It was a fitting finale for a man who used these women as objects for his own emotional and sexual gratification, and who demanded they prostrate themselves that he might walk above them as their god.
Ultimately, the “winning” contestant chose not to pursue a relationship after the show, and Michaels asked for his cowboy hat back.
So, I say again Michaels was a fraud. He wasn’t a sensitive rock star anymore than Joe Millionaire was a business tycoon. Both men were merely fools’ gold dangled before a group of gold-diggers too desperate to even care.
That’s precisely why it’s hard, almost impossible, to feel sorry for them.
As with Blind Date, these women aren’t innocent lambs being duped by a mean-spirited TV show, but rather wanna-be-famous bimbos.
No one forced Heather to get that tattoo. And as much as she probably regrets it (she still had it as recently as 2014), she definitely did not regret the fleeting brush with celebrity it brought her. She appeared in other VH1 shows – I Love Money, competing for cash, and Charm School, in which fellow Flavor of Love and Rock of Love contestants were “taught” manners. And she even landed tiny, cameo appearances in Californication and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Likewise, two Flava of Love and Rock of Love contestants went on to star in dating shows of their own – I Love York and Daisy of Love.
And a third, Playboy model and Rock of Love season two contestant Megan Hauserman, was the centerpiece of Megan Wants a Millionare, in which the self-proclaimed gold digger had her pick of wealthy suitors. It was this show that was canceled after three episodes when its runner-up killed his wife and then himself.
It was thus that VH1, having plumbed the depths of TV dating, found itself covered in the purest sewage of humanity.
But again, it wasn’t deterred. The network carried on with shows featuring Chad Ochocino, Antonio Sabato Jr., Ray Jay, and The Game. Most recently it aired Dating Naked, based on the novel concept of people dating while entirely nude.
Somehow that strikes me as less crass than the average Rock of Love or Flavor of Love episode.
Meanwhile, the ever uptight Bachelor franchise continues to plod along on ABC. The big development there is that in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen, The Bachelorette features its first black woman.
In 2014, Fox tried to duplicate its Joe Millionaire success with a new show called I Wanna Marry Harry. It convinced 12 American women that they were competing for Prince Harry, rather than a doppleganger. The show got cancelled after just four episodes.
The network also rebooted Love Connection with Andy Cohen.
Indeed, the TV dating landscape is looking rather tried these days.
There are, after all, only so many sharks to jump.
Still, the relationship lingers on like a stubborn marriage, with two parties quietly accepting their hum-drum fate.
We’ll always have the memories though…
The first flirtatious steps of The Dating Game, the sexually-charged dalliances of Love Connection, Blind Date’s trainwrecks, the tabloid affairs with washed-up celebrities rubbernecked by VH1, and the faux-romantic dressings of The Bachelor.
The fellatio, the literal and figurative fecal matter, and the serial killers are all there in one, big sprawling photo album.
It’s cheap, it’s phony, it’s sad, it’s horny, it’s desperate, it’s lethal, and it’s quintessentially American.
The roses are fake but the tears are real.