I never would have predicted that in this, the summer that Britain's much-ballyhooed Love Island crossed the ocean, I would be proclaiming some other show its superior. But while Love Island made its initial landfall with a thud, MTV premiered the 8th season of their reality dating competition Are You the One? … with one crucial difference. In previous seasons, the concept was to fill a house full of singles and let the men and women ho around for a few weeks in an attempt to find their "match" (producers use a secret matchmaking algorithm to ideally pair off the entire house), and if they're all successful, they win a cash prize. Now already this seems like better formula for a dating competition than, say, The Bachelor/ette franchise, for which the prize is ostensibly true love and a lifelong commitment despite the fact that the star of the show dating multiple people during this courtship runs counter to that endpoint. Are You the One? may seem cynical, but conducting what is essentially a chemistry test among similarly hot singles in order to match up and win cash seems far more honest than the fairy tale fantasy The Bachelor tries to sell.
Now what if I told you that, for this season, MTV upped the ante by filling the Are You the One? house with not just men and women looking to find their opposite-sex match but 16 sexually fluid people without any (or, okay, many) hangups about gender or sexual orientation? Suddenly, all 16 cast members are possible matches, and the potential for hookups and TV-friendly drama increase exponentially. This was what finally got me watching the show. As a loyal viewer of The Challenge, I was coming to the table with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Are You the One? was the show whose cast members first started infiltrating The Challenge and began to supplant my beloved (dirtbag) Real World alums. Time passed, tensions eased, but I still assumed Are You the One? was reality trash. But there is a long tradition of trashy MTV shows being elevated by the inclusion of queer people, Next to Undressed being two prime examples. If nothing else, the chance to watch 16 queer singles hump around on night vision and fight with each other felt more interesting than watching straight people do the same.
What I was not prepared for was for the all-queer Are You the One? to be both dramatically thrilling and culturally enriching. If you think I'm kidding, I strongly encourage you to watch for yourself. Within the shell of this shallow dating competition sits a show that has said more about dynamics within the LGBTQ+ community and the very specific ways that queer people navigate our own personal lives than any show I have … ever watched on basic cable. I must surely be exaggerating, but for the life of me I can't think of a better example.
The dominant story during the season's first four episodes has centered on Jenna, a bisexual woman who's been in some emotionally fraught relationships, and Kai, a young trans man eager to sow his wild oats and show off his body in a way he's never been able to before. One of the most immediately refreshing things about this season has been watching queer people just be themselves without having to argue for their own existence. Their queerness is accepted at face value, with everybody quickly moving on to sex, romance, and trying to game their way to a million dollars.
But just because everybody's queerness is accepted as a given doesn't mean the house is free of hangups. The cast members talk about internalized homophobia, struggles to come out to their parents, and their difficulties feeling beautiful in their own skin. 25-year-old Basit is outwardly confident and deeply fabulous, and on any other show they'd be the hilarious queer mascot dropping barbed sound-bites about the straight people and their nonsense, all while being denied romance for themself. The environment on Are You the One allows Basit the chance to seek out a potential match, though not without struggle. Their first choice to match is Jonathan, with his flowing mane of curly hair, and who admits to preferring muscled, masculine body types over Basit's black feminine aesthetic. Jonathan is hung up on Justin, with his shirtless-bartender physique. Justin, for his part, is initially hung up on Nour, and when he and Nour as declared to not be a match, Nour turns her gaze to Amber. And then after a couple episodes where Nour and Amber seem inseparable, Amber gets eyes for the statuesque Paige and Nour makes out with Kylie, who is still committed to Kari, who is pretty cool with Kylie's loose lips, all things considered. It's this kind of honest examination of intra-queer politics — masc-exclusive men, the marginalization of POCs — leading to soap-worthy rolling hookups that makes this season such a rare gem.
And the drama! Back to Jenna and Kai, whose relationship has, from minute one, been a hurricane of wanton desire mixed with the exaggerated despair that they aren't one of the algorithm-matched couples (this was confirmed in episode four). After half an episode spent apart — during which time Jenna took out her frustrations by sloppily making out with the perma-willing Remy (whom Kai had already hooked up with in episode 1) — the two stage a Notebook-esque rainstorm reunion that sees a screaming match erupt into passionate kissing, and when I say TV hasn't done high passionate romance like this in a long time, know that I am not kidding.
And this was the second such zero-to-dry-hump eruption of the episode, after Justin (remember our hunky bartender bod from above?) and Max let their sexual tension bubble over while literally changing clothes after a challenge. Max, for his part, is a gym body raised in a small town who'd been struggling with admitting to himself that his attraction to men could possibly lead to romance, another thread that's been examined in shockingly nuanced terms so far.
Again and again, Are You the One manages to deftly weave the strands of game show, hook-up show, and genuine social examination in a way that never feels too irredeemably trashy nor too very-special episode. More than anything else, it's the kind of show queer people are starving for that straight people have been swimming in their whole lives. A place where sex, love, friendship, and community mingle freely and excitedly. Where gender- and sexual fluidity aren't designations that make you different but freedoms that open you up to even more possibilities. This all sounds ludicrous when describing a feeder system to The Challenge, but right now, Are You the One? is the closest thing to a sexual uptopia that we have on TV, and you'd better check it out while it lasts.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.