After upscale, tasteful reality shows like Queer Eye and Dating Around, Netflix has started embracing the trashiness of the reality genre. With last month's The Circle and Love Is Blind, which premiered Thursday, "Netflix has gone all in on the sort of wacky, high-concept, insistently lowbrow setup that makes reality at once so derided and so addictive," says Alison Herman. "At Netflix, you can now have your HBO and your VH1." Herman adds that the two reality shows "share a flagrantly absurd and oddly similar premise: a standard reality template—Real World–style cohabitation, Bachelor-style meat market—minus in-person interaction. In the context of their mutual home, however, each series reads like an active rebuke of lessons learned elsewhere on the platform. The Circle, a 'social media competition' in which contenders only interact via voice-activated messaging system, resembles nothing so much as a supersized episode of Black Mirror, the dystopian anthology exploring the pitfalls of technology... Love Is Blind, which asks participants to commit to marriage without ever laying eyes on their prospective partner, reads like an allergic reaction to Dating Around, which promises nothing more for its costars than a second rendezvous. From a thousand feet up, Netflix’s reality strategy starts to look a lot like its scripted one: start with critical acclaim, ramp up to less prestigious crowd-pleasers. From the few inches separating me from my laptop screen while binging these shows, the appeal to individual viewers is obvious. Stunts, whether physical or emotional, are a spectacle; we love to watch others endure what we never would, whether that’s going days without speaking to anyone but a wall-mounted television or agreeing to go from introduction to matrimony in less than six weeks. Much of reality TV is an arms race to find the next great gimmick, and interpersonal relationships without flesh-and-blood people are as good a gimmick as any."
Netflix is terrifyingly good at reality TV because it knows how to tweak well-established formats: The streaming service has been "tweaking reality-competition conventions that had remained more or less static since Survivor, The Bachelor and, lest we forget, The Apprentice emerged at the dawn of the 21st century," says Judy Berman. "Comforting in their predictability, these franchises got viewers hooked on their repetitive rhythms: every episode began with a challenge or two, followed by a round of blunt judging or strategic voting, culminating in an emotional elimination. Some contests follow the American Idol model, which only diverges from the standard in that it kicks off each season with a look at the open casting process. But even irreverent twists like Drag Race stick to the basic formula. Netflix’s buzziest new reality games have looser, more mutable formats. The Circle isolates competitors in separate apartments, where they interact solely through the titular social-media platform in a sort of virtual popularity contest. Between eliminations, the show builds suspense into new contestants’ arrivals and the discovery of players who are catfishing (i.e., using profile photos or personalities that don’t reflect their true selves). Rhythm + Flow opens with a series of Idol-esque auditions in various cities, but at each location the hosts visit local music luminaries and explore the history of hip-hop in the region. Different kinds of challenges, from one-on-one rap battles to individual music videos, dictate ever-shifting episode structures. Both shows often close episodes on heart-pounding cliffhangers, saving eliminations and other surprises for early in the next hour. The tactic regularly keeps me watching for much longer than I ever plan to."
Love Is Blind turns a banal premise into something thrilling: "From an utterly banal premise about dating in the absence of visual cues, this series spins surprising human drama that’s more complicated than it might seem to have any right to be," says Daniel D'Addario. "Love Is Blind seems hardly to be a creative success: Its central idea is glumly obvious and barely even committed to, and, on a craft level, the show alternates between drab and outright unpleasant. But there are moments when its willingness to frankly depict human strangeness feels, in a moment of particularly massaged reality TV, thrilling."
Love Is Blind is basically reality TV crack -- or meth, or crack-meth: "You will decide to give it five minutes before bed one night and find yourself still on the sofa as the sun rises on another day," says Lucy Mangan. "You will be bleary-eyed and shattered from all the shouting you have done, the emotional investment you have made, the WhatsApp messages you have typed to a specially formed group and the heartfelt contributions you have made to various internet forums on the subject. It’s that good, is what I am saying. Not 'good' in any moral sense, obviously. In many ways, it is the final blow to the final nail in the coffin of civilization, and possibly humanity, as we know it."
Love Is Blind is a delightfully weird, chaotic cousin to The Bachelor: "Every five minutes or so during Love is Blind, you’ll likely find yourself wondering, 'What the hell am I watching?' That’s only fair; the show is designed to make you ask that question," says Laura Bradley. "The format: 30 people gather to find love by chatting with one another inside soundproof phone booths without ever actually meeting in person. Eventually they can leave the pods as a couple by getting engaged. After a few weeks in the real world, each couple must decide on their assigned wedding day whether or not they want to be married for real, forever. (Well, 'forever.')"
It's a delightful, cringe-worthy romp: "Love Is Blind had me at the edge of my seat, laughing out loud, audibly gasping, and feeling gratitude that I wasn’t on the show myself, which is my preferred feeling when watching shows that, at times, resemble watching trash burn. (And I say that last part with love.)," says Tricia Crimmins. "The constantly salacious series is messy in the best ways. Contestants continuously change their minds about getting married. Their parents don’t hold back when granting (or withholding) blessings for the marriage. People make profound, meandering speeches at the altar in front of all their loved ones. And the wine never stops flowing."