It's been four years since MTV had one of the greatest strokes of creative genius in cable TV history (it's Pride month; hyperbole is canonically queer) by turning the eighth season of its dating series Are You the One into a sexually-fluid land of plenty. Are You the One: Come One, Come All followed the same general format: 16 single people who self-describe as “bad at love” were gathered together and secretly paired up by a matchmaking algorithm. If everyone could find out who their perfect match was, the group would share in a prize of up to $1 million. The brilliance of Come One, Come All was in casting only queer, sexually fluid people who placed no gender limitations on potential partners. What resulted was the best season of Are You the One by far, and one of the most exciting, sexy, and legitimately inspirational seasons of reality TV ever. How could a dating show this trashy produce such a treasure? By adding queers.
Just from a game-playing perspective, the all-queer season of Are You the One took things to the next level. With 16 straight contestants, any one contestant could only have up to eight potential perfect matches. Come One, Come All bumped that number up to 15, cranking up the challenge factor and requiring everyone in the cast to be a lot more open to the possibilities for romance. Not only did that double up the possibilities for sex, but it also allowed the nerdier queers in the viewing audience (represented on screen by Danny) to really crunch the numbers, episode by episode, to see what pairings were mathematically the most probable.
Relatively speaking, having to sift through 15 possible matches in only 12 episodes didn't give the players a lot of time to kiss the number of frogs they needed to in order to find their prince, princess, or non-binary regent. Luckily, this cast was more than up to the challenge. The two-part season premiere featured the torrid instant-chemistry romance between Kai, a trans-masculine non-binary person who had recently transitioned and was very much interested in exploring the possibilities of their new body and these fun new hormones coursing through it, and Jenna, who was all too aware of her history of dating the wrong people and seeking out the wrong things in a partner. The two hooked up immediately and plunged into an intense Bonnie and Clyde arrangement, with the other cast members as the banks.
Meanwhile, Remy, an agent of pure sexual chaos, ended up hooking up with both Kai and Jenna, causing even more turmoil. Within the span of the first few days, Kai and Jenna broke up and reunited a good half-dozen times, including a screaming match in the pouring rain that ended in a furious make-out session.
The whole season was like that. The sexual energy in a house full of 16 scorching hot people with zero boundaries and a history of making impulsive romantic decisions was off the charts. Suddenly, Are You the One, a middling dating series that was best known as a kind of minor-league feeder system for The Challenge, had turned into something revolutionary: a celebration of honest-to-god queer desire, without any hand-wringing or punishment.
Are You the One: Come One, Come All delivered the classic elements of reality TV, including fights and volatile personalities. But it also made sure to take time to let the contestants revel in being among like company and to do so on their own terms. Some of the interpersonal conflicts involved real intra-community issues for queer people. Basit spoke openly about often feeling othered in the community for their femininity and Blackness. On the other end of the spectrum, Max struggled with being more recently out of the closet and more heteronormatively possessive over his in-house relationship with Justin. These stories weren't told as sermons, but as the gradual unfolding of the players' arcs across the season.
Queer representation on television — and in particular on reality television — can often take the form of trotting out LGBTQ+ people and having them recite their trauma for the enlightenment of their straight cast members (or audience). This can be beneficial and do a lot of good. But when reality shows cast one queer person in a group of 12, it can come across as tokenism. It also limits how much a queer person can succeed on a given show. More recently, shows like Survivor have taken steps to more aggressively diversify their casts, and the results have been seasons in which multiple queer people actually get to relate to each other on their own particular terms.
In the context of a candid reality show or a social strategy competition, that kind of increased queer representation can be beautiful. When unleashed on a dating show, it can be magical. The theme party has become a reality TV staple since before Nene Leakes threw her first annual Girls and Gays Never Forget All White Party Seafood Soiree. You've seen one, you've seen them all. But there was something more to it when Are You the One threw an under-the-sea dance-club, glitter-and-mermaids affair, a party that featured melodramatic romantic drama (yes, Kai was at the center), a few romantic breakthroughs, at least one near-fistfight, and shot after shot of the dancefloor with a sea of undulating queer bodies, some getting sexy with each other, some just appreciating the electric charge coursing through the whole group.
The entirety of the queer experience can never be encapsulated in one TV show. It's too vast and way too complex. But a show like Are You the One: Come One, Come All came the closest to approximating the unapologetic heights of being young and queer and desired.
To the massive disappointment of Season 8's queer audience, MTV never revisited the all-queer format of Are You the One. Despite the uptick in media attention and the quality of the season itself, the show returned to its heteronormative incarnation when it returned in 2023. Recently, reality TV series like Netflix's The Ultimatum: Queer Love have gotten attention for their queer seasons. But opening up The Ultimatum to queer couples didn't fundamentally change what that show was about. And it certainly hasn't provided the sense of community, freedom, and sex positivity that Are You the One did.
There was undeniable magic in Are You the One's all-queer season, magic that could be recaptured by a reality show bold enough to try it again. An all-queer season of Survivor, you ask? Somebody get a message to Jeff Probst.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer 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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.