Even by the standards of reality television shows, the premise of the new Netflix program Love Is Blind is annoyingly faux deep. Hosted by Nick and Vanessa Lachey, the show purports to be an experiment, exploring whether couples can fall in love without the distraction of appearances and/or the real world.
“Everyone wants to be loved for who they are,” Vanessa Lachey tells the contestants early on, “not for their looks, their race, their background, or their income." Thus the participants have to connect without seeing each other (they’re ensconced in little rooms called pods) and get engaged on that basis. They’re then shipped off to a couples retreat, or as Nick Lachey puts it — enunciating like a lecturing chemistry professor — they are "exposed to the physical realities of the material world.” In the episodes out today, they meet the parents, and in the final episodes dropping next week, they get married (or not).
The show is part of Netflix’s bigger foray into unscripted series. This has resulted in critical successes like Cheer, a documentary about a cheerleading team’s championship season, and Dating Around, a romantic and charmingly straightforward throwback to blind date shows. There have been more mixed results as well, like The Circle, a snoozeworthy mashup of Big Brother and Catfish for the social media age.
Similarly, Love Is Blind throws a bunch of successful reality TV formulas into the blender: a bit of The Bachelor (with the dating and sharing of backstories), some 90 Day Fiancé (the moving in together), and a dash of Say Yes to the Dress. But the show seems confused about whether it wants to lean into the shticks or be a quasi–cinema verité show in the vein of Dating Around. Ultimately, with five couples and so many phases, it never goes deep enough — or stays shallow enough — to be fully satisfying.
The most surprising and revealing part of Love Is Blind is the initial episodes that dropped last week. The contestants, segregated by gender (the show is deeply cis-hetero), can only hear each other as they chat in rooms divided by a single wall, which they call “pods.”
The white guys in particular can’t quite go along with the show setup. “What are you looking for in a woman?” one is asked. “In-shape and beautiful,” he replies, completely oblivious. Another one tells a contestant without being asked: “If I had to guess, I’d say you’re African American.”
The show zeroes in on particular couples, as the contestants share their backstories and get to know each other through the pods. Some of the pairs are especially thoughtful about the kinds of gendered (and racial) scripts they’re grappling with.
Ultimately, with five couples and so many phases, the show never goes deep enough — or stays shallow enough — to be fully satisfying.
One of the most interesting pairings involves Carlton, a 34-year-old in social media marketing, and Diamond, 28, a professional basketball dancer. They open up about past relationships. She talks about having to be strong her whole life, and he speaks about his difficulty being vulnerable, because “boys don’t cry” is “constantly conditioned in black men's heads since we're little boys; I have had to learn to open up and it's OK to be sensitive and emotional and vulnerable.”
When the couples actually meet, they gush about their significant other’s appearances, since, despite its ambitious premise, the novelty of the participants not seeing each other is largely nullified by the fact that the ones we actually see on the show are all reality TV hot. Blue-eyed gringo Damian says about Venezuelan-born Giannina, "Her skin tone's so soft...and it's so different and I love difference because different is beautiful,” he says, deeply satisfied with his poetics. “Who knew I could get so deep?"
As the show moves on to the retreat, it gets increasingly white and straight, as only one interracial couple survives. Carlton and Diamond (the only black couple) hit an impasse when Carlton (the only openly nonstraight participant) admits that he’s been attracted to men in the past. The conversation quickly escalates: He feels Diamond is defining him through his sexuality and not giving him a chance; Diamond feels he lied, and it explodes into the biggest “reality”-style blowup of the show. “Watch my ass to the next dick, boy,” she says, to which he retorts, “Watch your wig ‘cause it keeps sliding.”
Before the couple’s relationship imploded, theirs was the most complex, compelling storyline of the show, and nothing else comes close to it. The show can’t help that it cast a bunch of boring couples, and unlike the vignette-like Dating Around, where they can just cut to the next suitor, we’re stuck with these matches for the entire series.
A lot of space is devoted to an especially popular suitor, deep-voiced Matt Barnett, 27. A recovering fuckboy who goes by his last name, he admits to only going after pretty girls but is open to looking for a different kind of connection. He flirts with Jessica, a 34-year-old “regional manager,” who wants to get married and have kids, but ultimately decides to propose to 26-year-old Amber, a former cheerleader who served in Georgia’s Army Guard.
Jessica then tells us just how much she’s given up by picking Mark, a 24-year-old fitness trainer. “My usual type is usually a bigger guy,” pause, “just a bigger guy.” She pines for Barnett and is suspicious of her pick, the younger Mark, because he’s too good to her. “To me, it’s a bit of a red flag because no guy is that emotionally available,” she says. “I’ve never seen it.” Jessica is an interesting entry in the “Are straight women OK?” genre, and later she talks about her insecurities regarding their age difference and her fears of abandonment because of her biological father leaving her mom.
But rather than focusing on her story on its own terms, Jessica versus Amber vis-à-vis Barnett becomes a Bachelor-like triangle, as everyone is brought together for a birthday party for Barnett, hinting at the show’s confusion about whether it should explore the couples on their own or try to create drama by making them interact.
In the episodes dropping today, the couples move in together and meet the parents. There are potentially interesting things to dig into that come up as the participants settle into each other’s lives. Barnett and Amber talk about her debt and their differing approaches to finances. Lauren, a black content creator who falls for the shy, nerdy white scientist Cameron, talks about what it means to date a white guy and bring him home for the first time. He raps for her mom (and closes one eye while doing it). Her dad asks if he’s ever been in a room full of black people. (He has.)
But the attempt to fit their differences into identity boxes, and the relationship timelines into the conventions of meeting the parents and engagement makes the show lose steam. Compared to a less linear show like Couples Therapy, where partners can really dig into their issues, Love Is Blind features too many couples to really flesh out their relationships. The friends and family of most of them just keep saying “Is this lust or love?” — an unoriginal question — and it becomes a generic reality show about heterosexual courtship.
The least memorable white couple are Kenny and Kelly, whose names I struggle to remember. At one point, Kenny gives us this insight into his delight in being with Kelly, who is significantly shorter than him: “I like the fact that I have to bend down, like, meeting her in the middle, getting close to throwing my back out,” he says. “It’s awesome, and a constant reminder that I need to stretch.” Love Is Blind could have used similar advice about stretching.●