Netflix debuts Sexy Beasts today, a reality dating competition where the participants go on blind dates and test their chemistry with various partners, all the while while disguised by professional-grade makeup and prosthetics designed to make them look like animals, sea creatures, aliens, or some combination of all three. The end result feels a lot like you're watching a courtship of characters from Farscape or perhaps a Thundercats fan convention. It is absolutely one of the most bizarre concepts for a TV show ever, sure to elicit one particularly strong reaction from its audience: HOW is this a TV show??
The phenomenon of the "How is this a TV show?" show is nothing new, dating back to the days of Mr. Ed and The Flying Nun. In 1965, NBC debuted a show called My Mother the Car, the premise of which was that a man's mother died and was reincarnated as a car, which the man purchases, only to have his mother (the car) start talking to him through the car radio. The show only lasted one season, although at that time a single season shook out to 30 episodes. And this was before TV had bifurcated into dozens upon dozens of cable channels and streaming platforms. One of the three TV networks aired a show about an old woman reincarnated as a car.
In the years since, TV has never gone too long without introducing shows that boggled the mind. In the 1980s, there was Stephen Bochco's insane idea to make a cop show where all characters sang whatever they were feeling in the much-maligned musical extravaganza Cop Rock. That was a show that helpfully defines the distinction between a memorably terrible show and a "How Is This a Show" show. There have been many dozens, arguably hundreds, of terrible shows through the history of television, The difference between those and the HITAS show is one's absolute incredulity that such an idea ever made it on the air. Surely somebody along the line must have said "Singing hardboiled cops is about eight steps too far."
Or how about the idea of anthropomorphized dinosaurs rendered as full-body puppets blatantly ripping off The Simpsons? Because that was ABC's Dinosaurs, a show that ran for four seasons in the mid-'90s and ends with the Ice Age and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Family comedy! (And now it's streaming on Disney+.) In the Aughts, we got a sitcom based on the Geico cavemen, advertising characters who were already a tired one-joke premise when ABC greenlit a show about them.
But nothing has been more of a boon to the "How Is This a Show" phenomenon than the advent of reality television. In the post-Survivor years, TV networks approved all sorts of TV competitions that played a high-stakes game of chicken with just how far the American reality show contestant was willing go in the name of being on TV. Unsurprisingly, sex and dating were the terrain upon which many of these HITAS shows were built. There was the quasi-talent show Are You Hot?, where judges used laser pointers to help them spotlight the finer points of the contestants who were there to be told whether they were hot or not by, among others, Lorenzo Lamas. The Swan took on the squirmy task of taking contestants who weren't happy with their appearance and put them through extreme plastic surgery procedures, to the point where they looked almost nothing like their original selves, and then made them compete in a pageant.
So many shows like these aired during the Aughts. On the FOX special Who's Your Daddy?, a contestant who'd been separated from their biological dad since birth was tasked with picking out their real father from a lineup that included decoys. On Mr. Personality, a bachelorette had to choose from a bunch of bachelors who were masked, lone ranger-style — so she couldn't choose based on handsomeness — all under the watchful eye of host Monica Lewinsky.
At some point, the reality industry caught on to the fact that they could bend reality however they wanted to. To the point where they created the parody reality series The Joe Schmo Show, where a rube was cast in a house full of actors pretending to be on a reality show. The Joe Schmo Show is not a "How Is This a Show" show, because the idea was honestly genius. But you can't say the same for The Real Gilligan's Island (a reality competition where teams took part in competitions as if they were on the TV series Gilligan's Island) or Scared Famous, where VH1 gathered some of their own celebreality stars, had them live in a "haunted" house, sprung "ghosts" on them periodically, and then had them vote each other out and compete for a cash prize.
More recently, the "How Is This a Show" trend has seen the rise of the low stakes, high comedy game show, exemplified by shows like Minute to Win It and The Cube that are essentially collections of dorm-room physical challenges (how many quarters can you pick up off the ground in a minute??), or large-scale recreations of childhood games like The Floor Is Lava, Ultimate Tag, and NBC's upcoming (and diarrhea-inducing) Ultimate Slip-N-Slide. Again, they made a TV show out of the game you'd play hopping couch-to-couch when your parents left you at home with the babysitter you didn't like!
We're stuck with the "How Is This a Show" shows in part because sometimes they become big hits. The Masked Singer is an inane concept, with celebrities using voice disguisers and then singing while ensconced in elaborate, terrifying costumes. The Circle is a game show where the contestants don't leave their little efficiency apartments for weeks and open every conversation with the phrase "Circle Message." And both of them huge hits!
Is it any wonder, then, that we're currently living in an era of cooking shows that shoot full meals out of a cannon in order for contestants to guess their ingredients, or have contestants investigate the scene of an already-cooked dish, as they do on Crime Scene Kitchen? Taken in this context, Sexy Beasts seems almost normal. Sure, they're dressed up like furried and amphibious grey aliens, but at least nobody is getting permanent plastic surgery or speaking to their dead mother through a car radio. The "How Is This a Show" show is a television staple, and it's almost certainly here to stay.
Sexy Beasts is now streaming on Netflix.
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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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.