Why did I fall for 'Love Is Blind'? Because Netflix is really good at making reality TV
(EDITORS: This review discusses some of the events in the first half of Netflix's reality series "Love Is Blind.")
For all the money it spends trying to win Oscars and Emmys, have you noticed that Netflix is better at making the cheap stuff?
It's February and we're still raving about "Cheer," the streaming service's superb six-part docuseries that follows a team of cheerleaders from a small Texas junior college. That show joins "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo," "Queer Eye," "Nailed It!" and other non-scripted Netflix shows as a consistent reason to subscribe.
Something about mixing the emotional mayhem of reality TV and one's private relationship with Netflix just clicks. The reality genre rewards the binge impulse and other forms of obsessive-compulsive watching. Also, there are no commercials - the ceaseless ads for cosmetics, weight-loss programs and car insurance discounts that pester TV's reality fans into a stupor. And no Andy Cohen, no cross-promotions - no nonsense, really, except for the nonsense of the reality show itself.
I guess this is my way of telling you about the recent afternoon I started watching Netflix's "Love Is Blind" and didn't stop until I'd finished all 10 hours of it. I'm trying to recall when I watched a set of preview screeners with the same degree of rapt desire and attention, all the way to the bitter end. (Actually, it was "Cheer," come to think of it.)
On its face, "Love Is Blind" (the first five episodes of which are now streaming) is neither wildly original nor exceptionally good, and yet I am desperate for you to watch it, so that we can yell about it. It's a dating/relationship show, the kind which TV viewers have only seen a thousand times before, in ABC's long-running series "The Bachelor" and the countless attempts by other networks to rival it.
"Love Is Blind" begins with a hokey premise that's been tried before in various ways, wondering if, in the era of Tinder swiping, the chances for a relationship might be better if you removed looks and first impressions from the equation. Several single men and women sign up for what they all keep referring to, until the very end, as "the experiment." Ah yes, it's all just for science.
Segregated by gender, the participants get several opportunities each day to go on "dates" with someone from the other side of the wall. In private lounges, the man and woman can just talk, separated by an opaque partition. The only means of attraction is conversation - asking questions, listening to answers. In a text-before-talk era where people treat making a phone call as a presumptuously rude act, these participants - in their mid-20s to early 30s - all seem eager to see if it's possible to fall in love with somebody just from the sound of their voice and the spark of conversation.
Falling in like before the big reveal won't do. These people are required, by the inherent nuttiness of reality television, to fall in love enough so that after a few days, marriage proposals are made - sight unseen.
Many viewers have been around this block before. By now, the wisest among us have set down the spears and other weapons we used to brandish against the reality genre, demanding to know its various tricks and deceits, insisting that it conform to objective truths. That tut-tutting phase of viewership should be long past; anyone still hung up on the genre's authenticity needs to give up and move on.
The rest of us long ago reconciled the act of watching and even occasionally enjoying reality TV in an ongoing post-truth, Trumpian nightmare by simply falling back on an old cliche: "It is what it is." This means that the only thing that's real is that the TV is on and you are watching something happen to someone as it may or may not have transpired.
For us, then, "Love Is Blind" offers an almost insanely hilarious sampling of so many beloved and tawdry reality shows. In its earliest stage, it borrows dynamics from CBS' hyper-conniving "Big Brother" and the ingloriously ritualistic "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" series.
As proposals are made and five newly formed couples get a first look at one another as fiances and fiancees, the show begins to ape Lifetime's "Married at First Sight," only with a twisted reversal of stages, in which the couples are sent off to a honeymoon-like trip at a Mexican beach resort, followed by a few weeks of living together as couples in neutral, open-floorplan apartments in Atlanta, where all the participants permanently reside. Along the way there are families (and pets) to meet and a wedding to plan (think TLC's "90 Day Fiance" and "Say Yes to the Dress"). The final episode, viewers are promised, will feature the big walk down the aisle, where, at last, they will have the choice to say I do - or no thanks.
Some of the couples experience an attraction that was as good as the talking in Stage 1 - enough so that they eagerly begin having sex. Some hold out, whether out of a personal sensibility or an understandable case of buyer's remorse.
Others, of course, are naturally born to deliver on reality TV's promise. After being wooed by the broliciously down-home twang of Barnett, a 27-year-old construction engineer, the woman on the other side, Jessica, a 34-year-old regional saleswoman with a raging case of single-itis, thinks she's found her match. Barnett, however, has enjoyed his flirtatious conversations with Amber, a freewheeling 26-year-old cocktail waitress and former military tank mechanic. Barnett dumps Jessica and proposes to Amber, at which point it's useful to remember: None of these people have seen one another.
Jessica then accepts a marriage proposal from her second choice, a totally sweet 24-year-old fitness trainer with an Oscar Isaac smile named Mark. After the doors part in a swirl of mist and she actually sees him (he's a lot shorter than she hoped; apparently this never came up?), a painful cycle of gaslighting begins, as Jessica cruelly strings Mark along while still pining for Barnett. The experiment always creates a monster.
The far more compelling (and worthwhile) narrative at "Love Is Blind's" center involves Cameron, a strapping, 29-year-old former firefighter turned artificial-intelligence scientist, who falls in love with the voice of Lauren, a 32-year-old content creator. Cameron is white and Lauren is black; despite whatever nonsense comes and goes in any reality show, the two make a convincing case that love can indeed transcend any barrier. He's all in, lovey-dovey and then some, while she's a bit more hesitant (but also smitten). Like any biracial couple, they have some serious territory to navigate, even in 2020.
It's here, perhaps, where Netflix's strength as a reality-TV provider becomes clear. In this all-you-can-eat format, far less energy is spent editing the stories around the false construct of commercial breaks and cliffhangers designed to stretch from one crisis to the other. "Love Is Blind" is in no danger of turning into a serious documentary project, but it's also not as obligated to follow the genre's prescribed tropes down to the letter. The participants can, when needed, stop pretending to ignore the camera and behave like rational people who have discovered (too late) that this experiment has gone too far.
Most noticeably, the content can be as adult as it needs to be. As a thoughtful gift to fans of the genre, it can be quite childish, too.
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"Love Is Blind" (10 episodes) is now streaming on Netflix, starting with episodes 1-5. The remaining episodes will stream on Feb. 20 and 27.