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A Cultural History of TV Dating Shows

From The Dating Game to The Bachelor and beyond, it's been 55 years since TV began playing matchmaker.
  • Too Hot to Handle, Love Connection, The Bachelorette and Singled Out all trace their roots back to The Dating Game. (Photos: Netflix, Telepictures, ABC and MTV)
    Too Hot to Handle, Love Connection, The Bachelorette and Singled Out all trace their roots back to The Dating Game. (Photos: Netflix, Telepictures, ABC and MTV)

    ABC is bringing back one of the most venerable titles in game-show history tonight with the premiere of Celebrity Dating Game. A celebrity-themed twist on the original Dating Game of the 1960s and '70s, the new show invites a celebrity to choose between three eligible (and unseen by them) singles, based soley on their answers to a series producer-written, innuendo-laden questions. This time around the series is hosted by the New Girl herself, Zooey Deschanel, with an assist from Michael Bolton, who contributes to the televised romance of it all by performing parody songs designed to provide the three contestants with hints about the (unknown to them) celebrity they're competing to date.

    It is, in short, the latest in a very long line of televised dating shows. But while The Celebrity Dating Game is largely a throwback to the original Dating Game, a look at the many shows that have aired in between says a lot about how TV and our cultural tastes and standards have changed over the last five-plus decades.

    In the 1960s, if you wanted to see dating on TV, you were basically confined to Patty Duke's teenage crushes and The Courtship of Eddie's Father. But in 1965, TV producer Chuck Barris asked "What about real people?" And so The Dating Game was born. The show would feature a single woman separated from three single men by a panel so she couldn't see them. Left to judge these bachelors by their answers to silly questions, the woman then chose which of the bachelors she'd like to date. In those early days, the very concept of The Dating Game was enough to carry it as a TV novelty. The concept of the show was ostensibly about compatibility, even if the basis for that compatibility was flimsy and silly.

    Compatibility — or at least the pretense of compatibility — has been at the heart of nearly every show that's followed in The Dating Game's wake. That was certainly true of Barris's next show, The Newlywed Game, which technically wasn't a dating show (the dating came before the wedding) but operated on the same general premise: what do these people's answers to dumb little double-entendre questions say about their prospects for staying together forever? More than simply entertaining their audiences, shows like The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game burrowed themselves into the cultural lexicon — see the way Celebrity Dating Game gleefully replicates the original set for kitsch appeal; or any time people joke about "making whoopee."

    In the '80s, the dating-show gauntlet was picked up by Love Connection, the Chuck Woolery-hosted show that played like The Dating Game in reverse. On Love Connection, the matchmaking happened before the show — as did the first date. The show itself recapped the date and determined whether or not a "love connection" was made, which would lead to further dates. More than anything, Love Connection felt like the traditional dating show was being brought into the talk-show era of the 1980s, with a visual style more akin to the daytime talk shows and magazine shows of its era than those earlier Chuck Barris productions.

    This autopsy-of-a-date concept continued on into the early 1990s with Studs, which sent its contestants out on multiple dates before the show and then, Newlywed Game style, asked them questions to see whose answers matched up best. Studs was a dating show with attitude, like much of TV at the time. It wasn't an MTV show (although it was memorably featured on an episode of The Real World), but its successor on the dating-show timeline was.

    Singled Out was a late-'90s MTV show through and through. It was big, loud, and fascinated with all the ways it could get away with putting sexuality up front. Host Chris Hardwick handled the contestant, a single person looking for love, whose back was to a peanut gallery full of incredibly hyped up singles all hooting and hollering for a chance to get with this person. Jenny McCarthy managed the pen of singles, which went fine when it was women; when it was the men, it mostly devolved into them barking like dogs and her manhandling them like some kind of college frat fantasy. Singled Out was a big hit for MTV and pretty much re-defined the TV dating show, although its extreme '90s-ness renders its rewatchability a terrifying trek through bad behavior and landmines of toxic masculinity.

    Singled Out helped usher in a truly cursed yet deeply memorable era of dating shows that mostly existed in syndication. Blind Date premiered in 1999, hosted by Roger Lodge, and was fairly straightforward and uncomplicated in its premise: to follow along on a blind date and see what happens. True to its era, the show was draped in sarcastic voiceover and animated graphics, turning even the most mundane date into a kind of farce for viewers to rubberneck at.

    Blind Date marked the next big evolution in the dating-show genre, as we were now on the date with our singles. This perfectly tied into the reality TV boom of the era, where voyeurism was baked into the premise of this and nearly every dating show that followed. And since reality TV competitions were particularly in vogue, game-ified versions of Blind Date were next to emerge, like Elimidate and The 5th Wheel, which would either eliminate contestants or swap partners to ultimately arrive at a "winner."

    These elimination-style dating games proved to be very popular, especially on MTV, which introduced shows like Next (one single "dates" a bus full of other singles one at a time, pulling the ripcord when each date becomes unbearable), Dismissed (one person goes on a date with two people simultaneously and ends up choosing one over the other), and Date My Mom (contestants go on a date with their intended's mother, who then chooses the right person to date their kid). MTV's shows were among the first to open their dating pools to same-sex daters, with the gay episodes of Next and Date My Mom among the most satisfyingly chaotic, and made all the more memorable for their rarity, especially among queer teens of that era, who were starved for gay reality content on TV.

    The next big trend in TV dating shows came during the post-Survivor reality TV boom when every network was desperate to score the next big reality hit. The smash success of the first season of FOX's Joe Millionaire — where a single man claimed to be a millionaire (he wasn't) and had a bunch of single women competing to be his chosen mate — had the other networks scrambling, and although Joe Millionaire tanked in its second season, its influence was felt on a series of other shows with premises that introduced an element of uncertainty or subterfuge into the equation.

    NBC's Mr. Personality (hosted by Monica Lewinsky) had its male contestants in masks, with the bachelorette tasked with choosing a mate without knowing whether the guy's face was handsome or an unholy abomination. NBC also made hay with the not-traditionally-attractive-male-meets-beautiful-woman vibe with Average Joe, though on that show the "average"-looking males were at least allowed to show their hideous faces. The controversial Boy Meets Boy, which aired on Bravo, was a landmark for gay dating shows, even as its twist was that half of the purportedly gay male contestants turned out to be straight men who were essentially landmines in the field for the show's bachelor.

    Against the backdrop of these increasingly tawdry dating competitions — FOX's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? was plagued with controversy over its titular bachelor's net worth and domestic violence accusations — you can see why a show like ABC's The Bachelor might've seemed like the classier alternative. Simple by comparison, The Bachelor sold the fiction of romance to its audience even as it lined up dozens of single women to vie for the attention of one man. The show's enduring success is a testament to the fact that audiences were longing for something less icky than the previous era of dating shows, although nearly 20 years on, it's The Bachelor franchise's feints towards purity and romance that end up feeling the grossest of all. In recent years, the show has become best known for its (many) controversies, which have served to keep it in the public eye but would seem to signal that the show itself has lost its relevance.

    There have been other offshoots and tangents when it comes to TV dating over the years. For a while FOX delighted in sending a bunch of singles off to a tropical destination and having them either try not to cheat on their significant others (Temptation Island) or couple up at will (Paradise Hotel). Both shows ended up being inspirations for MTV's Are You the One?, which starts off as as a free-for-all and then brings in exes of the contestants to complicate matters. Celebrity Dating Game is notable for adding celebrities to the mix, but the idea of a celeb giving normals the chance to date them goes back at least as far for Flava Flav bestowing nicknames and clocks upon single women on VH1's Flavor of Love, which spawned an entire universe of franchises and spinoffs, including Bret Michaels in Rock of Love.

    Most recently Netflix has re-ignited the romantic obstacles genre with shows that challenge singles to find love without being able to partake in one of the essential components of courtship — like being able to see (Love Is Blind) or touch (Too Hot to Handle) the person you're dating. Ultimately Celebrity Dating Game's retro appeal proves that there is truly nothing new under the sun when it comes to dating shows, with the possible exception of Michael Bolton singing about C-List celebrities on a retro '70s game show set.

    The Celebrity Dating Game premieres on ABC Monday June 14th at 10:00 PM ET.

    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.

    TOPICS: The Celebrity Dating Game, The 5th Wheel, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Blind Date, Date My Mom, The Dating Game, Dismissed, Elimidate, Joe Millionaire, Love Connection, Love Is Blind, NEXT, Singled Out, Studs, Too Hot to Handle