The revealing and disturbing story of America, told through 20 years of reality dating shows - The Washington Post

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(Geoff Kim for The Washington Post)

If you are looking for the exact moment when American culture went off the rails that it has never managed to climb back on, may we offer a singular scene on television from Feb. 15, 2000: a man in a tuxedo, bent down on one knee, proposing to a total stranger in a wedding gown. She tearfully accepts while four other women, also wearing wedding dresses, shuffle off the stage.

The nearly 23 million viewers who tuned into “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” were simultaneously riveted and horrified. But most importantly, there were 23 million of them. This would not be a one-time phenomenon, but rather the origin story for a new genre, the “reality dating show.” (When the deep human need for companionship and money-hungry Hollywood executives love each other very much …)

Since then, millions upon millions of people have spent many hours of their lives enraptured by these shows, which continue to proliferate with no sign of slowing down, like an invasive species that has become part of our natural environment. How did this happen? And what has 20 years of watching these spectacles — singles hooking up, couples breaking up and aspiring Instagram influencers melting down, all in the name of finding “love” — done to us?

To find out, we chose one reality dating show that debuted every year from 2000 through 2020 — shows that were particularly popular, controversial, influential or taught us something unexpected. (Quite a few were left out … sorry, “Conveyor Belt of Love.”) We talked to dozens of people: Contestants who loved the experience and those who regret everything. Producers who are proud of the content they made and others who could never stomach to work in the genre again. Reality TV experts who appreciate the escapism and entertainment value, but also lament the negative influence of these shows, from perpetuating damaging stereotypes to fueling the lack of representation on our screens.

Sometimes, these series are surprisingly hopeful. But mostly, they are disturbing. Deeply disturbing. But no matter how many people decry that the shows are fake and/or feel like the downfall of society, the impact has been extremely real.

2000

“Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” (Fox)

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“Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” was a massive hit — until allegations of past abuse surfaced. (Geoff Kim for The Washington Post)

As the legend goes, the idea for “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” originated at a wedding attended by TV producer Mike Darnell, who was thinking about how to replicate the success of rival network ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” game show. He realized he could zero in on two of America’s biggest anxieties: love and money.

“I kept thinking: Why is this show working? Because winning money is a huge American dream,” Darnell said, according to TV reporter Bill Carter’s book “Desperate Networks.” “And I’m sitting here watching another huge American dream, which is getting married. What’s bigger than that? Getting married to a wealthy man.”

The unapologetically misogynistic concept enraged critics, who likened the spectacle to prostitution. That outrage, according to multiple accounts, was pretty much the reaction producers — which included future “Bachelor” creator Mike Fleiss — hoped for. (Darnell declined to comment.) The special was a massive hit. The groom, real estate developer Rick Rockwell, and the bride, emergency room nurse Darva Conger, set sail on a Caribbean honeymoon. Producers started plotting follow-up specials.

Then everything imploded. The Smoking Gun revealed that nine years prior, Rockwell had a restraining order filed against him by an ex-girlfriend, who alleged physical abuse. (Rockwell denied this.) Conger told media outlets she realized when she “won” that going on the show was a huge mistake, and cried herself to sleep every night. The marriage was annulled and producers launched an investigation into the negligent background check. Behind the scenes, Carter reported, Fox executives were mortified and furious, and the president declared his network was done with such exploitative trash.

However, the seeds were planted: People really would sign up to humiliate themselves on a national platform to try to find their soul mate. Viewers, apparently, would watch. Weeks into the controversy, the press couldn’t stop talking about it. And in Hollywood, sometimes that’s all that matters.

2001

“Temptation Island” (Fox)

When Mandy Lauderdale was a 22-year-old model and agreed to participate in a “dating documentary” with her boyfriend, she was unaware of the show’s true premise, even when they were required to undergo all manner of doctor visits.

“We should have known with the STD tests that something was up,” she said.

In fact, none of the participating couples knew they would be flown to Belize to an island full of hot single people who — thanks to psychological background checks — producers knew would be especially alluring to each person. The couples were split up and offered these “temptations.” On top of shock value, the show was also billed as a, um, helpful way to test if partners were meant to be together. (Contestants Kaya Wittenburg and Valerie Penso-Cuculich, who were together on the show, said people earnestly told them afterward that watching them successfully get through “Temptation Island” inspired them to save their own relationships. They broke up three years later.)

Unexpectedly, the series, another one from Darnell, was a cynical, teachable moment about what audiences want. Carter reported that Fox executives, scarred from “Millionaire,” found out during filming that one couple, Taheed Watson and Ytossie Patterson, had a child, which was against the rules of casting. But this time, Carter wrote, they realized if they simply incorporated the controversy, it could work for them, so they filmed a producer informing the unhappy couple they were kicked off the show. If there was any doubt about leaning into drama, it was cleared up when that episode was a ratings bonanza.

The incident also became an example of real-life consequences of such actions: Watson and Patterson sued Fox for defamation of character. Now, Patterson says the experience “kind of ruined me.” She added she felt blindsided and would have never participated if she knew what the series was really about. She remains unimpressed with the genre.

“I cannot bring myself to watch any reality shows,” she said.

2002

"The Bachelor” (ABC)

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Brad Womack with contestant Chantal O'Brien on "The Bachelor," which has been running for 18 years. (Rick Rowell/ABC)

If watching “The Bachelor” makes you feel ill, that’s fitting: Creator Mike Fleiss told Vanity Fair that a vision for the show appeared in his head when he had a 104-degree temperature. Yet no matter how degrading it is to watch dozens of adults fight to marry a person they have known for approximately two months, this 18-year franchise remains unstoppable. It’s one of the few shows that still command a live TV viewing audience, and has launched a cottage industry of Instagram influencers.

More than any other dating show, experts say, the longevity of “The Bachelor” explains why this genre persists: It expertly taps into the very real need for love and how to find it. Even if you know that producers edit any kind of drama they want, and contestants only are there to (shudder) “build their brand,” viewers subconsciously soak in lessons about relationships that apply to their lives.

“We would be lying if we didn’t tell ourselves that watching these shows … affects us in how we think about dating,” said Natasha Scott, co-host of the podcast “2 Black Girls, 1 Rose.” She pointed to “Bachelorette” star Hannah Brown being “gaslit” by manipulative suitor Luke Parker, a story that “resonated with a lot of young women across America.”

This makes the embarrassing record of diversity on the franchise — which only recently cast Matt James as the first Black “Bachelor” after fan pressure — even more disappointing, Scott said, and reinforces the damaging idea of who our culture deems worthy of love and extravagant romance. “With that power, [the show] has not taken much responsibility in trying to show different representations of love,” she said. “It continually operates in a formulaic fashion in terms of whose stories get highlighted and whose stories are told.”

“Joe Millionaire” (Fox)

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"Joe Millionaire" was parodied everywhere from the New Yorker to “Saturday Night Live." (Geoff Kim for The Washington Post)

The age of misinformation got a head start in 2003 when 20 women were told they were competing for the love of Evan Marriott, heir to a $50 million fortune — who was actually a construction worker making $19,000 a year. Around 40 million people tuned into the finale, eager to see Marriott reveal the truth and if a woman would run away screaming from a poor person.

In the end, it was basically fine (Marriott and winner Zora Andrich were awarded a $1 million check to split for their troubles and broke up shortly after), but the premise set a precedent for TV creators: People would believe what you told them to believe, leading to other bleak attempts such as “I Wanna Marry Harry."

Showrunner Liz Bronstein is still stunned by how the show blew up, parodied everywhere from the pages of the New Yorker to a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Though she’s proud it became a pop culture phenomenon, it made her realize she wasn’t cut out for the reality dating genre. “I didn’t want to spend my career lying to people and tricking them,” she said. Marriott has also expressed regret about participating. He has dropped out of the public eye, but Bronstein said she heard from him a few years ago. “He called me and pitched me a show about how reality TV shows had ruined the lives of people who had gone on them.”

“Playing It Straight” (Fox)

Describing this show in 2020 will only result in one reaction: shock that it aired on TV. Five straight men and nine gay men pretending to be straight competed for one woman’s affection. In the end, if the woman chose a straight man to date, they would each receive $500,000. If she chose a gay man, he would win $1 million and she would win nothing.

The series originated in the U.K. before it was sold to Fox, and executive producer Adam Wood said they envisioned it as a “slightly absurd” twist on “The Bachelor.” Obviously, it did not go over well in America and was canceled after three episodes. The U.K. version had high ratings, though in the end, the woman chose a gay man who felt so guilty he offered to split the prize money anyway. “It felt darker than we had imagined,” Wood acknowledged. “I don’t think we had thought that far ahead.”

U.S. contestant Bill Bouvier said that, in theory, he thought the show would be an opportunity to break down stereotypes on TV of how a gay man should look and act. In practice, he said, the experience was “absolutely horrendous.” By pretending to be straight, he felt like he was “thrust back into the closet” all over again. Today, he’s still troubled by shows that make jokes out of marriage.

“You can have people who don’t know each other get married, or make it a game, but two gay men is ‘destroying the sanctity of marriage,’ ” he said. “It’s such a slap in the face where they’ve taken it.”

“Next” (MTV)

“‘Next’ was literally Tinder before Tinder. But instead of swiping left, you got kicked off a bus.”

That explanation from D Renard Young, president and executive producer at That Rockz! content studio, makes perfect sense to any millennial who came home from school and watched people reject each other on MTV. A guy or girl would go on individual dates with a group of suitors sitting on a bus. At any point, if they didn’t like how the date was going, they could yell “NEXT!” and the next person would walk out of the bus and take their shot.

While it featured a diverse group of daters (and was one of the first dating shows to cast LGBTQ contestants), Young also called it “popcorn voyeurism at its best.” People were instantly “next-ed” for a variety of reasons: too boring, not tall enough, hideous shirt. It was a haunting preview of life on dating apps and normalized the idea of nixing a potential partner instantaneously.

“If you’re single, even the most bizarre dating show can provide a sense of comfort and hope, because many viewers have been there,” Young said. “Or, it can serve as a cautionary tale for what not to do.”

“Flavor of Love” (VH1)

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Rapper Flavor Flav was one of the first celebrities to realize a dating show could boost your profile. (Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Relaxing in a limo with his signature giant clock hanging around his neck, rapper Flavor Flav explained why he agreed to star on a reality dating show. “I’ve got fame and fortune, I’ve got real valuable works of art, I’ve got a mad domestic staff, I’ve got a nice big mansion,” he told the cameras during the premiere. “But none of these things mean nothing without a woman to spend it with.”

The Public Enemy hype man was one of the first celebrities to realize a dating show could boost your profile, alongside the likes of Christopher Knight on “My Fair Brady” and “Scott Baio is 45…and Single.” But as “Flavor of Love” skyrocketed in the ratings, and was one of the rare shows that didn’t have a majority-White cast, many slammed it for trafficking in stereotypes about Black women. Contestants were shown screaming, fighting and performing demeaning challenges. (In one of the most famous scenes, Tiffany “New York” Pollard lunged at Brooke “Pumkin” Thompson after Thompson spit on her.) Some said the series positioned Flav and the cast’s antics as a modern-day minstrel show.

“The problem isn’t Flavor Flav,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University, in a 2006 Washington Post story that explored whether the series should be treated as “camp” or a source of outrage. “The problem is Flavor Flav becomes the stand-in for the one or two Black people you see on TV. And a figure like Flavor Flav takes on more importance than he should.”

Nicole “Hoopz” Alexander, who won the first season, said in an interview that she didn’t listen to the criticism. And although filming the show was surreal (“When you’re inside something, going through the experience, you don’t understand it”), it changed her life. She was glad to see a dating show that finally had a diverse cast and recalled Flav referring to himself as “Black-chelor” because, as he correctly predicted, the actual broadcast network “Bachelor” wouldn’t cast a Black man as the star anytime soon.

“A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila” (MTV)

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Tila Tequila was MTV’s “bisexual bachelorette.” (Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Years before Tila Tequila was kicked off “Celebrity Big Brother” for writing a blog post that sympathized with Adolf Hitler, and before she revealed herself as a born-again Christian whose old self was “dead,” the model and singer was deemed “the Madonna of Myspace” with 2 million online friends. Thus, she was the perfect fit as MTV’s “bisexual bachelorette” on a show in which 16 straight men and 16 lesbians competed to date her. (She later said she was never actually bisexual and just “gay for pay.”)

Sherri Williams, an assistant professor of race, media and communication at American University, remembers that instead of the show offering visibility for bisexual people, it “just ended up showing more about the patriarchy than anything else.” The male contestants were hypermasculine, she recalls, making it seem like those qualities could override any desire that Tila Tequila might have for a woman.

The danger of this type of programming, she said, is that many people want to write off reality dating shows as garbage, when in fact “all of these shows show where we are as a society — what we value and what we believe.” So it’s telling when producers sideline anyone who isn’t a cisgender, straight, conventionally beautiful White person. Even years later, Williams said, “there’s still a lot of fetishizing on these shows.”

“Farmer Wants a Wife” (CW)

Ah, the classic attempt to appeal to middle America. Just like “The Simple Life” before it, producers figured they could get mileage out of throwing “big city” women into small-town life. (Contestant Josie Goldberg said she was told she was cast in the “Jewish American Princess” role.) Female participants competed in various obstacles — milking a goat, corralling chickens — and tried to win over a hunky single farmer. As the theme song went, “His land and cattle and chickens abound / but this good ol’ boy ain’t got no lady around.”

The concept seemed bizarre to contestant Krista Krogman, but after she was approached by a casting director at a Miami nightclub, she figured she would give it a shot. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, let’s just see what happens,” she said she thought at the time. “It’s fun, exciting, something different.” In the end, not many people watched, though it didn’t stop other attempts outside New York or Los Angeles, from “Sweet Home Alabama” to “Alaskan Women Looking for Love.” Although this one was billed as “The Bachelor” meets “The Simple Life,” turns out audiences really just wanted “The Bachelor.”

“Megan Wants a Millionaire” (VH1)

In one of the darkest reality TV stories, this VH1 series was pulled off the air after three episodes when one of the contestants, Ryan Jenkins, was named the suspect in the murder of his ex-wife; days later, he was found dead by apparent suicide.

VH1 quickly canceled the show and one of its spinoffs, “I Love Money 3,” which featured Jenkins. It turned out Jenkins had a prior record of domestic violence, which the production company missed in its background check. The situation was “the worst thing to ever happen to me in my career,” executive producer Mark Cronin told Entertainment Weekly in a deep dive about the horrifying situation. The whole genre got a serious wake-up call about the critical importance of properly vetting contestants.

Megan Hauserman, the star of the show and a Playboy model who also starred in VH1 shows including “Rock of Love With Bret Michaels” and “Rock of Love: Charm School,” was cast as the lead of her own find-a-husband show when she told producers that she didn’t want a job but rather yearned to be a trophy wife. After the show was scrapped, she said, her TV career disappeared — no one wanted to touch anyone remotely associated with Jenkins.

“For many, many years, I was depressed by so many different aspects of it: knowing someone involved in that, knowing that a person close to me did that,” she said. “I was upset because my show was canceled; every opportunity that I had at that time ended and was canceled.”

“Donald J. Trump Presents: The Ultimate Merger” (TV One)

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Omarosa Manigault Newman's dating show garnered high ratings. (Geoff Kim for The Washington Post)

It wasn’t just an “Apprentice” reunion when Omarosa Manigault Newman joined President Trump’s administration in 2017 as director of communications for the White House Office of Public Liaison. Back in the day, they extended their lucrative partnership to “The Ultimate Merger,” featuring 12 men vying for Omarosa. “I’d love to have you meet some guy. Is there anybody that can tame you?” Trump, an executive producer on the series, asked in the premiere as she laughed. (Oh, if only we could have seen a glimpse of what the future held for the two of them.)

Executive producer D Renard Young said that though he figured people would tune in because Omarosa was so polarizing, even he was surprised by the high ratings. He knew her earlier persona as the villain on “The Apprentice” franchise was criticized as perpetuating the “angry Black woman” stereotype, which they worked hard to avoid.

“That’s the beauty of having creatives and executives of color making decisions behind the scenes, such as myself, as we didn’t manipulate situations in the edit to portray stereotypes that continue to plague Black women,” he said. “We allowed Omarosa the space to express her full range of emotions.”

Young is proud that the cast had “smart, funny, Black men represented on reality television. … Before this show, we were always shown in a different light in this genre.” A scene when Omarosa got in the hot tub with her suitors was especially memorable. “It was refreshing and rare to see an African American woman as the object of affection, desire and attention,” he said, adding, “If Black Twitter was popping in 2010, it would’ve birthed many memes.”

“Love in the Wild” (NBC)

You know how you can get a glimpse of someone’s true personality by how they react when they get lost while driving? That was the basic idea behind “Love in the Wild,” except instead of a wrong turn on the highway, producers matched up random single people, sent them to navigate a Costa Rican jungle, and had them forge through quicksand or brave crocodile-infested rivers.

“We wanted to see, if people had to work together, would it bring them close together quickly?” said executive producer Tom Shelly, who also worked on “Survivor.” “We were really hoping to get real relationships out of it.”

Turns out when you base the premise on that type of psychology, it actually works? Five out of the 20 couples over two seasons wound up married — an impressive batting average for a genre that has a low success rate. Season 1 winner Samantha Spiro confirmed it that was not the way she expected to meet her husband, but, well, life is full of surprises. She and Mike Spiro tied the knot three years after the finale.

“Those high-pressure situations made us feel close to each other really fast,” she said. “Being in that situation with no cellphones, no distractions, nothing else besides human contact — it was just us all the time.”

“The Choice” (Fox)

“The Choice” was like “The Voice” except for dating instead of singing: A group of celebrities, for some reason, signed up to sit on swivel chairs and listen to men or women describe themselves. If they liked what they heard in these “blind auditions,” they turned around. The show was truly as ridiculous as it sounded, and shocked us because it showed that famous folks who had many other means of dating — including Joe Jonas, Carmen Electra and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino — still turned to TV. The “dating show” remained a powerful platform.

Of course, no one took it too seriously. At the beginning of each episode, producers aired a recap of what happened when a celebrity went on a date with the person of their choosing. Results varied from “texting ever since” to “better off as friends” to “promised to keep in touch” (we know what that means).

“Ready for Love” (NBC)

One question that plagues observers of these shows: Why would anyone sign up to be on them?! With all the evidence that they didn’t work and/or were a source of potential public humiliation, “Ready for Love” was proof that even 13 years in, the urge remained strong to look for a soul mate on television.

Ben Patton knew the drill; he had even once declined a chance to be considered for “The Bachelor.” But a producer for “Ready for Love” made an intriguing sales pitch: Patton would be one of three bachelors, with zero pressure to get engaged, and women would be chosen by professional matchmakers. Patton considered this. He had been out of the dating world while working abroad. So, he thought, why not?

“Ready for Love” only lasted a few episodes, and drew unfavorable “Hunger Games” comparisons as women were “presented” to the men onstage with a live audience. Patton said even though he didn’t find his future wife (he and the woman he chose broke up), it gave him a new understanding of why people reveal so much of themselves on TV.

“The camera is an uncomfortable element for about two weeks, max,” he said. “Then you end up becoming friends with sound guys, camera guys … when you build that rapport, you forget they’re a voyeur.”

“Married at First Sight” (FYI/Lifetime)

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Keith Manley and Iris Caldwell tie the knot on "Married at First Sight" on Lifetime. (Kinetic Content/JCM Photography)

When “Married at First Sight” started casting, producers weren’t sure anyone would sign up. After all, you had to agree to be set up with a stranger by a panel of experts and then instantly marry whoever they chose. Buyers were hugely skeptical, but eventually it landed on the FYI cable channel. The debut sparked even more stunned reactions and mockery as viewers tried to process what they were seeing.

Yet, once again — you may be sensing a theme here — everyone underestimated people’s desire to find a partner, especially when 14 years of reality dating shows had desensitized them. Fast forward, and the series — a bona fide hit which has since moved to Lifetime and is about to launch its 11th season — has produced nine married couples. “It’s a show that celebrates love, at its core, and people who are willing to do one of the craziest things you can imagine doing, legally, in hopes of finding love,” said Chris Coelen, chief executive of production company Kinetic Content.

Iris Caldwell was a loyal fan of the series and applied as soon as she learned the show was filming its ninth season in Charlotte. Her story line drew plenty of headlines (she revealed that she was a virgin) and she wound up breaking it off with husband Keith Manley, but she regrets nothing and says she’s “still a huge hopeless romantic.” She credits the show’s popularity to viewers who watch and relate: “We’re going through similar situations — rejection, love, getting to know someone,” she said. “This is just a public way of doing it.”

“Everlasting” via “UnREAL” (Lifetime)

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"UnREAL" co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro drew inspiration from working on "The Bachelor." (Geoff Kim for The Washington Post)

Yes, obviously “UnREAL” was a scripted drama that went behind the scenes of a fictional dating show, “Everlasting.” Yet it was jarring to see “Everlasting” producers pull out every sick, dirty trick to manipulate cast members into having mental breakdowns — especially when you consider that co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked for three years on “The Bachelor,” so she was drawing real-life inspiration from somewhere. (Shapiro told the New Yorker that her “Bachelor” bosses would order her to make contestants cry on camera or she would be fired.)

The drama series took a nosedive after the first season, partially due to a much-criticized police brutality story line in which a White producer called the cops on the show’s first Black star. And plenty of people were unnerved by what they saw with an apparent peek behind the curtain. Still, it didn’t stop them from watching “The Bachelor” in real life.

“Catching Kelce” (E!)

Maya Benberry didn’t pack too many clothes when she was cast on a mysterious athlete’s dating show. “I just really honestly went into it like, ‘I’m a Black girl, this is probably a White guy, and I’m probably only going to be there like a week or two,’” she told The Washington Post’s Amber Ferguson.

The series wound up starring sometimes controversial NFL star Travis Kelce, whose goofy nature off the field made him a natural for this kind of role. Benberry couldn’t believe it when she and Kelce clicked and he chose her at the end. However, when filming was over, Benberry said Kelce told her the producers wanted to redo the story line to make her the villain, because they liked the idea of the villain winning the show.

The result was a nightmare: She was portrayed in a “negative, villainous, angry Black women type of way,” she said, and received racist comments and death threats online — an issue that remains a disturbingly common experience for reality contestants of color. She and Kelce broke up; she didn’t feel like he, the network or producers supported her. (Kelce and the producers did not respond to a request for comment; no one who worked at E! when the show aired could be reached for comment.)

In editing her as the villain, Benberry said, they also didn’t show Kelce expressing how much he liked her. That way “the audience would think that I wasn’t going to win, and that I was just some evil, bitter girl, when in reality I wasn’t. So that was unfortunate. I felt like it kind of made the experience, for me, not as fun.”

“RelationShipped” (Facebook Watch)

Is there anything more dystopian than clicking on a button and controlling the fate of another person? Probably not, and it was clearly only a matter of time before dating shows tried this out. BuzzFeed made the attempt with “RelationShipped” on the Facebook Watch platform, where viewers could choose the star of the show and future contestants — so basically not too different from fans voicing opinions on celebrity relationships in comments sections, but with actual consequences. Producer Tom Shelly said that contestants “didn’t take it too seriously” since the viewers made a lot of decisions but that it created a social experiment — not even so much with drama, but more so with how everyday humans would react to an incredibly surreal situation being foisted upon them.

“The Proposal” (ABC)

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"The Proposal" was a flop — and another lesson in faulty background checks. (Byron Cohen/ABC)

While “The Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” remain a mainstay, as well as spin offs such as “Bachelor in Paradise” and “The Bachelor Summer Games,” one flop showed that fans wouldn’t watch everything from creator Mike Fleiss. (He declined to comment for this story.) “The Proposal” was essentially a pageant similar to “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?,” which didn’t grab this decade’s audience. Plus, it was yet another lesson in faulty background checks: The network had to pull an episode when one of the contestants was accused of past sexual assault as the show started airing.

“How are we supposed to find out about something that’s never been reported???” Fleiss tweeted. “For the record,” he added, “I am horrified that any of these abusive a--holes are on our shows. We are working very hard to find ways to do better.”

“Love Island” (CBS)

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"Love Island" first gained popularity in the U.K. (Colin Young-Wolff/CBS)

The U.K. viewing audience went bananas over this controversial show — producers sequestered hot singles in a Mallorca villa and let chaos ensue — after it debuted in 2015. Naturally, America wanted a piece. Set in Fiji, the CBS version didn’t garner anywhere close to the amount of attention it did in the U.K., but it pleased the network enough that it ordered another season, presumably to capture young viewers. ITV Entertainment’s Simon Thomas, who executive-produced the U.S. version, said he thinks that contrary to popular belief, crazy drama isn’t always necessary to entice fans.

“My favorite ‘Love Island’ moments are miscommunications, or little ‘he said she saids,’ where what appeared to be a rock-solid relationship in the morning unravels by the evening,” he said. “You don’t need people throwing champagne glasses at each other — that’s not real life.”

Kate Casey, host of the “Reality Life With Kate Casey” podcast, said a major reason these shows catch on is because of the communal viewing experience, especially on a series like “Love Island” that airs daily. “I think you can’t forget that it’s also just a supremely satisfying television-watching experience,” she said. “You can chat with your friends and make fun of [contestants] or root for them. It’s a fantastic escape from our crazy world.”

“Love Is Blind” (Netflix)

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"Love is Blind's" concept of dating in pods is no longer crazy in a covid-19 world. (Netflix)

After years of drilling unattainable beauty norms into our heads, Hollywood has occasionally tried to backtrack and teach us that attraction can be more than a physical connection. “Mr. Personality” made men cover their faces with creepy masks. “Dating in the Dark” was exactly what it sounded like. Neither lasted many episodes.

The breakthrough was Netflix’s hit “Love Is Blind,” a fitting culmination of two decades of reality dating shows. The wacky idea (people start out dating in pods where they can’t see each other, although it no longer sounds that crazy in a covid-19 world) at least tried to be progressive by focusing on emotional connection first … even if it had a viral scene of a contestant giving wine to her dog.

Creator Chris Coelen said he saw criticism along the lines of “this show is the final nail in the final coffin of humanity.” A review from the Guardian said as much, adding it was “absurd, revolting, endearing, toxic and wholesome by turns — and addictive as hell throughout.” “Sure, I guess you can look at it that way,” Coelen said. “But to me, that’s not why I created it or why it resonated. I think it resonated because it’s relatable. We all want to feel like, hey, we should be loved for who we are.”

Williams, the American University professor, said she sees the “Love Is Blind” popularity as a sign that while audiences will never tire of these shows, they will get oversaturated with endless “Bachelor” variations that showcase women seeking fairy-tale fantasies that do not exist. But she sees potential with series such as MTV’s “Are You the One?,” which featured a sexually fluid cast; or “Labor of Love,” which, while it had ridiculous elements, actually starred a woman in her 40s who wanted to have a baby, with or without a husband.

“As we see this genre aging more, people are running out of ideas,” she said. “But the ones that are more real and more inclusive are starting to germinate and really rise to the top.”