When you hear that MTV's long-running Are You the One chose to cast entirely sexually fluid contestants for its 8th season, opening up its matchmaking possibilities and leading to one of the sexiest, most exuberant celebrations of queer sexuality on TV, the last thing you expect is that becoming a fan of the show will lead to scribbling out math problems on a scratch pad at midnight on a Wednesday.
Such is the unique charm of this season of Are You the One, a bacchanal of sex-positive, queer-normative, sneakily insightful LGBTQ+ representation that nonetheless does not shirk its responsibility to be good, trashy fun. The math comes in when dealing with the structure of the competition, where instead of looking to eliminate one another, the 16 cast members are trying to pair up in a way that matches the pairs devised by a matchmaking algorithm before the season begins. (See? We're only two paragraph in and I'm talking algorithms — see if you get THAT from Love Island!)
Every week, select pairs enter the Truth Booth to confirm or deny (this season, it's mostly been deny) that they're a perfect match. And then at the end of each episode, all 16 pair off for the matchup ceremony, where the group gets one beam of light for every correct pair. No beams means a Blackout, and a loss of $250,000 from the million-dollar jackpot. So each week there's a little bit more data to help all us queer, horny nerds at home try to figure out who the 8 correct matches are. (Lest you think your esteemed authors here are the only such nerds at this game, there are entire blogs dedicated to working out the probabilities — with graphs! — after each episode.)
After five straight weeks of a LOT of chaotic queer energy but zero confirmed matches — culminating in a dreaded blackout at the end of week 5 — we'd finally amassed enough data to make some real progress in week 6. Brandon and Aasha were confirmed as a match in the season's first successful Truth Booth, and MTV even went to the unprecedented step of letting the viewers at home know that Jonathan and Basit, who'd taken the long way through infatuation, denial, and contempt before finally kissing last week, were indeed the season's second match. (It’s likely they did this because, as anyone who’s been doing the math knew, they were statistically assured to be a pair.)
This blackout Thanos— #AYTO (@AREUTHE1) July 30, 2019
Two confirmed matches out of eight might not seem like a lot, but after five weeks of ruling out a number of possibilities, two matches were pretty much all we needed to crack the whole season wide open. All you really had to do was look back at the pairs from the week 1 matching ceremony:
There were two beams in week 1, so in addition to the confirmed Jonathan and Basit, one other pair was correct. We can officially rule out Aasha and Paige, because Aasha was confirmed to be with Brandon. We can also rule out Jasmine and Jenna, because …. well, it's a long story and a LOT of probability math, but TL;DR, Brandon and Aasha being a perfect match means Jasmine and Nour are also a dead certain match. Which leaves us with only two viable possibilities for that second match in week 1: Max/Justin or Danny/Kai.
If the editing on the show is to be taken at face value, the match is Max and Justin. They've been one of the 2-3 most dominant storylines this season, with Max initially reluctant to break out of his only-bi-in-L.A. closet, and Justin having a bit of a wandering eye (no great sin in this particular context, but understandably irksome to Max). Currently, though, Max and Justin are fully boo'd up and feeling awfully confident that they're the third beam from the most recent matching ceremony. (Beams 1 and 2 being Brandon/Aasha and Jonathan/Basit.
And then there's Danny and Kai, who have paired up a few times at the matching ceremonies but have never shown much more than a passing flirtation. Kai has spent the bulk of the season in a sexually bombastic — but definitively doomed — relationship with Jenna, one that has played out like an extremely watchable version of Tennessee Williams goes to spring break. Danny, meanwhile, has been the sweet soul perpetually passed over by his oversexed housemates. Editing-wise, a Danny-Kai fan has to be hoping that MTV has been slow-playing this reveal.
Mathematically, it has to be one of them, to the point where separate camps are setting up: are you a Justin/Max or a Danny/Kai? Well, we've gathered one Justin/Max (Primetimer managing editor Joe Reid) and one Danny/Kai (Priimetimer contributing writer Kevin O'Keeffe) to hash it out before Monday night's all-new episode.
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Kevin O'Keeffe: Okay, Joe. I know I should be rooting for Justin and Max at this point. I know I should believe in the power of love, and “follow my heart,” as too many people keep declaring this season. In truth, I watch them, and I do get a strong sense of the warm-and-fuzzies. They’re important for each other: Justin makes Max more comfortable with his own sexuality, while Max grounds Justin a bit. However, there are three compelling reasons why I don’t think Justin/Max is the endgame: one editing-related, one cynical, and one purely mathematical.
I’ll start with the editing-related reason: As you mentioned above, Justin and Max have been a major featured storyline this season, while outside of a few glimmers here and there (including a cute bit in which Danny and Kai wrestle in their underwear this past episode), the other possible pair has been largely invisible this season. But you know who else has gotten a ton of story focus? Amber and Nour. And Jenna and Kai. And they were decidedly not perfect matches. There’s something to be said for a slow burn edit, planting just enough seeds along the way to come to fruition at season’s end, versus putting all your eggs in one basket.
Joe Reid: The editing is definitely what makes me least sure about Justin and Max; every time we see them entangled in one another in an interview setup talking with such certainty that they are a definite match, I start to worry that the show is setting them up for the fall. But honestly, can it really be true that ALL the most seemingly certain matches this season have been busts? In addition to the delightfully passionate Jenna and Kai and the ill-fated Amber and Nour, there was also Kylie and Kari, who initially seemed so good and caring for each other (even if Kylie kept wandering to make out with other people), and who went five weeks before their unsuccessful Truth Booth. If Justin and Max are a bust as well, that deals a severe blow to the rule of attraction. Maybe that's the story of this season. That when we open ourselves up to the possibilities offered by all genders and sexual orientations, we have to look beyond our most basic attractions. If you think that's a bit too social-science-y for Are You the One?, you clearly have not been enjoying this show like you should.
But while object lessons in stepping outside your comfort zones are all well and good, I still look at Justin and Max and think they could work on paper, even beyond the animal attraction that they showed in that first kiss of theirs, a dramatic locker-room, up-against-a-wall number that by all rights should be an MTV Movie/TV Awards nominee next year. Justin seems like he's got the kind of forward sexual energy Max needs to draw him out of his safe cocoon, while Max has been the only person this season able to re-focus Justin's wandering eye. I think they have shown eons more chemistry than the pair you're backing. While I like Kai and Danny a lot as individuals, I'm not sure they work at all as a pair. Sell me on this!
KO: That kiss was crazy hot, I can’t deny that. No show consistently gets me fanning myself the way Are You the One? does. But again, as we saw with Jenna and Kai this season, passionate sexual chemistry is not necessarily the makings of a perfect match.
This takes me to my second argument, which is the cynical one: I don’t really trust this matchmaking system. So far, our matches are two attractive, relatively low-key people in Brandon and Aasha, two free spirits in Basit and Jonathan, and two chaotic forces in Nour and Jasmine. (See: their fight in the preview for Monday’s new episode.) Not the most groundbreaking stuff, although I’ll admit Basit and Jonathan took longer to work than I expected. I think — and credit to Michael Chu on Twitter for seling me on this theory — the matchmaking algorithms are not attuned to the messiness that is queer dating. What works for heterosexual couples won’t necessarily work for a group of sexually fluid people, because despite Mackelmore’s claims, it’s not the same love we’re talking about here.
So make no mistake: I’m not arguing for Danny and Kai as a perfect couple in the real world. But do I think it makes sense that the matchmakers put the square-looking guy who enjoys playing with his gender expression with women’s clothing with the trans-masculine non-binary person who’s as horny as a pack of rabbits? Yeah, I could definitely see that.
JR: Okay, that's a fair point, but you didn't have to bring Macklemore into it, jeez!
KO: Apologies, I know that’s triggering.
My final point is mathematical: If you look at the blog linked above, there are only 11 possible combinations of couples left. In 10 of them, Danny and Kai are together. In the 11th, Justin and Max are together. That’s right: There is less than a 10% chance mathematically that Justin and Max are a perfect match, compared to an over 90% chance of Danny and Kai. I don’t like those odds. Moreover, because they’re only viable in one combination, believing in Justin and Max means also believing in Amber and Paige (fine enough), Danny and Kylie (unbelievable), Jenna and Kari (CHAOS!), and Kai and Remy (which I’ll admit is the most believable couple on this list). I’m not ready to take that mathematical leap of faith for this set of matches.
JR: Okay, I'm glad we arrived here. First of all, while you're right that Justin and Max have only one path out of 11 where they are confirmed as a couple, but that 90/10 figure is a bit misleading. What that ultimately means is that a confirmed Max and Justin mean that the other un-matched dominos (Danny, Kai, Remy, Kari, Kylie, Jenna) fall into place quickly, based on previously ruled-out pairings. It's not like all 10 of the possibilities that include Danny and Kai can come through. Ultimately, only one scenario out of eleven will play out.
You're right, though, that a Justin/Max pair would lead to pairs like Danny/Kylie and Jenna/Kari, which doesn't exactly seem right. Part of that is that Kari and Kylie were partnered up for so much of this season that we haven't seen a ton of who else they'd vibe with. And Danny has been, for lack of a less problematic term, friend-zoned by basically everybody in the house, so it's hard to see him matched with anyone either. But Amber/Paige? Remy/Kai? Two pairs whose chemistry has already been confirmed!
Meanwhile, the scenarios that arise if Danny and Kai are a match are, to me, just as odd. Max would have to match up with Kari, Kylie, or Amber — leaving his whole narrative about overcoming his hangups about being intimate with men moot — or else Remy, which … actually that might work. And it would leave Justin with an adventurous girl like Amber or Kylie. Kari ending up with a sweet/hot girl like Amber actually seems like a decent idea. Okay, but most importantly, a Danny/Kai matchup would have to be accompanied by a Jenna/Paige matchup, and I just don't but those temperaments meshing. Unless Jenna's tendencies towards obsession would help perpetually overlooked Paige feel like the beautiful ostrich she is, plus we know Jenna has a historical thing for a porcelain complexion. Damn it, did I just talk myself into a Danny/Kai scenario?
KO: A-ha! My master plan is complete. Welcome to the winning team, friend.
In all seriousness, I do see the flaws. You’re right about Max winding up with a cisgender woman feeling off-base. But I also think there’s been an overriding narrative this season that the players are rejecting the “Perfect Match” system. Couples with great chemistry haven’t been matches, while those we’ve gotten have seemed only somewhat enthusiastic about each other at best. So let’s say Max winds up paired with, say, Kari (that path, in which Amber winds up with Kylie and Justin winds up with Remy, makes the most sense to me). There’s an edit to be put together in which they say fuck the system and stay together because they may be falling in love with each other. Jenna and Kai could do the same. It’s the queerest season of Are You the One? yet, and what’s queerer than rejecting the framework of the show entirely?
JR: In the interests of some disagreement, I would say my pick for a Danny/Kai path would be the one that goes Max/Remy, Amber/Kari, and Justin/Kylie. But as you have so intriguingly suggested, maybe this season is really about queering the whole system! Maybe Jenna and Kai can spend time getting to know Danny and Paige and then at the end of the day all four of them tumble into the Boom-Boom Room together. Maybe, as you say, Max and Justin can reject the matchmaking algorithm for everything except game-playing purposes. Maybe Roxie Hart truly can marry Harry and mess around with Ike. It's a brave, new, thrillingly fluid world we're living in. This is the future pansexuals want, and I am here for it.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.