Prior seasons of Are You the One? had been standard, unscripted fare: entertaining but vacuous. This new installment, though, serves a multi-layered purpose. For heterosexual audiences, it’s didacticism wrapped in an alcohol-soaked reality-TV bow, while for LGBTQ viewers, it’s an opportunity to be seen—for better or worse—more intimately than many dating shows have previously allowed. The new season of Are You the One? premiered right at the tail end of June—Pride Month. Like the hyper-branded festivities it coincided with, the show is a fascinating tonal mashup: The episodes that have aired thus far weave lessons about sexuality and gender (and the politics of dating while queer) into every element of the show. Cast members introduce themselves with backstories that account for upbringings spent in the closet or involve being the only publicly queer kid in middle school.
In this, Are You the One? offers a refreshing divergence from many past incarnations of LBGTQ-focused dating shows. Though the series doesn’t eschew boozed-up romantic drama, it never plays its participants’ sexual orientations as the source of spectacle. They’re people who are messy and queer—not messy because they’re queer. With the exception of Netflix’s quietly revelatory Dating Around, many dating shows with LGBTQ (and especially bisexual) contestants have treated them as hypersexual or prurient anomalies, as enigmas who are incapable of settling down.
Consider, for example, the reality-TV boom of the late ’90s and early aughts. On Are You the One?’s own network, MTV, a surge of programming that depicted non-celebrities interacting sloppily with one another shifted the television landscape. Many of these shows weren’t explicitly dating-focused (The Real World, Road Rules, Room Raiders), but several MTV and VH1 romantic-competition series attracted wide audiences. MTV’s first “dating reality series,” Singled Out, aired from 1995–98, but within the next decade, shows like DisMissed, Parental Control, Flavor of Love, and Next had effectively gamified love and public attention: Even if contestants didn’t charm the objects of their affection, their outrageous behavior often enthralled viewers.
In an entertainment landscape that so clearly prized interpersonal chaos, the introduction of LGBTQ story lines was unsurprisingly salacious. The 2003 Bravo series Boy Meets Boy, for instance, took the straightforward premise of The Bachelor and applied an ethically dubious twist: The gay leading man, James, and his heterosexual best friend, Andra, initially had no idea that the mix of suitors competing for James’s heart on national television included both gay and straight men. When it was revealed to them, midway through production, their objective shifted from a putatively romantic pursuit to guessing which men had been tricking James all along.
Boy Meets Boy presented this as an intriguing plot development, but the show replicated the kind of dangerous guesswork queer people must undertake each day—for gay men like James, incorrectly identifying another man as gay could lead to consequences far more dire than losing a game show. Disappointingly, James and Andra’s selection process also included regurgitating harmful intra-community stereotypes about bisexual people. (So, too, did Playing It Straight, the 2004 Fox series that required its female lead to guess which of the men on a massive Nevada ranch were gay in order to win prize money.)