It has been said that people have only two desires, to love and to be loved. Eating an excellent slice of apple pie? That’s loving it. Throngs of adoring fans clamoring for your autograph? That’s being loved. Some people, though, have a hard time finding affection in either direction. So television smiled down upon the loveless masses and gave unto them the dating game show. It’s like any other game show, except that the contestants come seeking dates instead of cash and prizes. More importantly, the dating game show provides a special opportunity that real-life dating could never afford: the chance to be on television.
There have been countless dating shows over the past 50 years, but they largely subscribe to one of three formats: speedy matchmaking along the lines of The Dating Game, voyeuristic date commentary akin to Love Connection, and dramatized dating competitions like Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire?. As is the case with most television, the primary goal is always to entertain the audience at home, but as time marched on, many of these shows traded sweetness for sarcasm and grabs at romance for grabs at fame.
It all started with The Dating Game on ABC in 1965. The formula was straightforward: A photogenic bachelorette would sit on one side of the stage, asking icebreaker questions to three potential suitors behind a partition. Unaware of their name, age, occupation, or income, the bachelorette was reduced to innuendo-laden setups for the suitors’ hopefully witty retorts.
The fun of the game came from catching the bachelors off-guard and watching them stammer their way into banter that sounded smooth in their heads but came out as desperate and confused. After only a few minutes of questions and some gentle ribbing from host Jim Lange, the bachelorette would choose one suitor to accompany her on a network-provided dream date (with a network-provided chaperone, naturally), while the duds received “lovely parting gifts,” that classic game show kiss-off. Mild embarrassment was to be expected, but all in all, it wasn’t a bad deal.
The Dating Game was an immediate sensation, but it was typically an adults-only affair. In the mid-1990s, lovelorn teens and twentysomethings got their moment in the TV dating spotlight when MTV—experiencing a creative renaissance at the time—cooked up Singled Out. Originally a special event for college students attending the network’s spring break party week, Singled Out featured 102 single college students for every 22-minute episode—one contestant of each sex and 50 suitors for each. As a result, the show was designed to move quickly. It did so with an overabundance of enthusiasm, thanks largely to co-hosts Chris Hardwick and Jenny McCarthy—who was later replaced by Carmen Electra.
McCarthy and Electra served as high-energy eye candy for the boys and playful big sisters to the girls while the pre-Nerdist Hardwick tried to hide the chip on his shoulder as a dork in a room full of pretty people. There was a lot of fun to be had with silly questions and wacky games, but the best reason to tune in was the early portion of the game when dozens of freshly eliminated guys or girls would march past the contestant and wave as if to say, “That’s right, you don’t get any of this sugar.”
The most recent evolution of the speed-dating format was Game Show Network’s Baggage, which premiered in 2010 and returned to The Dating Game’s standard of three suitors for each bachelor/bachelorette contestant. While both The Dating Game and Singled Out plowed through the question-and-answer segments in order to produce two couples every half-hour, Baggage stuck to one matchmaking session. The intent was to draw out as much interpersonal catcalling as possible—a well-documented strength of the program’s host, Jerry Springer.
About halfway into each episode of Baggage, the two remaining suitors were asked why the contestant should go out with them and not their competitor. Most guests were happy to talk about what a good and desirable person they are and leave it at that, but Springer frequently jumped in to reinforce the last part of the question: “Why not the other guy?” The Dating Game and Singled Out both attempted to find who was the most compatible, but Baggage was more about determining who is the least deplorable.
In the ’80s, with The Dating Game having faded from the air, the field was clear for a new kind of dating show. While audiences got a kick out of The Dating Game’s flirtations, the show never gave much attention to what happened after the cameras stopped rolling. Were they a good match? Did they argue? Is he a lousy kisser? In an effort to answer these questions, producer Eric Lieber’s Love Connection was born in 1983. While there were still three suitors for each guest on the show, the match was decided quickly, and the date occurred largely off-camera. The juicy part came when the couple returned to discuss the events of their date with host Chuck Woolery. Instead of watching strangers attempt to woo one another, they were now airing their dirty laundry in front of a studio audience, and America ate it up. Love Connection became one of the longest-running game shows in television history and resuscitated Woolery’s career. When questioned about the show’s appeal by the Chicago Sun-Times, Lieber confessed, “We’re all a little voyeuristic and enjoy peeking into someone else’s life.”
Still, Love Connection’s voyeurism happened from a safe remove, dramatizing dates through “he said, she said” accounts. In 1999, the U.K. import Blind Date took this idea to its next logical iteration by pairing up couples and filming their dates in their entirety, adding Pop Up Video style narration that encouraged the audience to point and laugh. The low-budget syndicated program was an instant hit, a favorite for college students, stoners, and E!’s Talk Soup clip show.
Perhaps inadvertently, Blind Date started a new trend of voyeuristic dating shows in which the appeal of the show was a cruel and sometimes unfair treatment of the people involved. Blind Date’s producers tested these waters with The 5th Wheel, a program where two couples would go on a date, a fifth single contestant was introduced, and the players were encouraged to re-couple and evaluate their options. The 5th Wheel incorporated the familiar “pop-up” graphics and captions throughout the dates, though the commentary on Wheel had noticeably more of an edge to it.
Other dating competitions that followed this trend included ElimiDate, in which one guy or girl would go out with a group of dates at once and trim the group down as the date went on; Next, in which a line of suitors waited off-camera to replace the current date the moment a potential match was eliminated; and Exposed, in which contestants were unknowingly subjected to lie-detection software for the entirety of their group date. Many of these disastrous dating programs were produced for MTV, which had a hard time recreating the success of Singled Out without an affable personality like Hardwick attached. The participants may have had romantic intentions when they signed up for these shows, but the audience only tuned in to watch souls get crushed on television.
Programs like Blind Date prepared the audience for the coming wave of reality television at the turn of the millennium. Not only was it now commonplace to watch ordinary people (read: not actors) go out on a date and attempt to charm the pants off one another, Blind Date had also made it acceptable for the show’s producers to add their own commentary. The “real” was amplified and elevated to the realm of the sensational. So audiences were ready for a whole new level of unscripted televised romance: the reality dating competition. These programs married the behind-closed-doors appeal of the previous wave’s voyeuristic dating shows with the grandiose production values and narrative voice expected of primetime network drama—dating as “event” television.
Fox was the first network to jump on the reality dating competition bandwagon with the outlandish two-hour spectacle Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire?, which was later followed by the only slightly less gross Temptation Island. The latter show put four couples on an island, separated the men and women, and surrounded each group with a dozen attractive models in the hopes that they would cheat. (The sociological insights were hardly surprising: It turns out that everyone loves getting attention from sexy singles but grows jealous when their boyfriend/girlfriend gets attention from sexy singles).
Although Temptation Island fizzled in the ratings, its format of season-long dating drama caught on with ABC’s The Bachelor, the show that would largely define its subgenre. A single man—deemed overwhelmingly eligible and desirable—is courted by several women at once as they vacation in a luxurious house together. The women compete for the bachelor’s attention and affection as their private moments and conversations are filmed for posterity. The centerpiece of each episode is a drawn-out and tense “rose ceremony” eliminations, where a single rose is given to each woman the bachelor wanted to keep around for the next episode.
Every season of The Bachelor is designed to close with the leading man proposing to the last woman standing, but only one winning woman wound up marrying their bachelor in the 17 seasons to date, with several men opting instead to keep dating rather than get engaged. (One man even proposed to the runner-up during a reunion special.) Coupled with nine seasons of its spin-off, The Bachelorette, The Bachelor came to represent an idealized vision of true romance.
While MTV was finding moderate success setting twentysomethings on thematically awkward dates (see above), sister channel VH1 launched a new lineup dubbed “Celebreality” where C- to F-list celebrities were reinvented as reality stars. The network stumbled onto a romantic goldmine when it retooled The Surreal Life, a Real World-alike where former stars lived in a house together. In Life’s third season, a relationship blossomed between cast members Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen. The two got their own spin-off, Strange Love, and when Flav and Nielsen split, the Public Enemy hype man got his own Bachelor-style dating competition, the popular Flavor Of Love.
All three waves of dating games first found lasting popularity with a show that, relatively speaking, had a core of sweetness. The Dating Game, Love Connection, and The Bachelor all maintained the illusion of romance for the audience—promoting the idea that its guests found real love and happiness. But in each of these subgenres, cynicism eventually took hold, and the format gradually devolved into crass and mean-spirited affairs designed to give viewers a sense of superiority. Of all the drama across three seasons of Flavor Of Love, what people remember most is Brooke “Pumkin” Thompson spitting in the face of Tiffany “New York” Pollard. Next and ElimiDate reveled in snap judgments and quick dismissals. The entire purpose of Baggage is to sneer at people’s quirks, fetishes, and questionable decisions.
The games that drove these dating shows stayed largely the same; they just encouraged worse behavior. Over time, the greeting-card vision of love reliably gave way to a perspective more like a jaded single who has experienced the depths of the dating scene. TV love does not age well.