Romance in reality programming has come a long way since The Bachelor debuted. Now, unscripted series addressing love and relationships are focusing more on what’s behind real love than fantasy flings. Here, realscreen explores how current reality series are taking on the topic.
If Pat Benatar thought love was a battlefield in 1983, it has been flat-out war since the advent of reality television. Newlyweds’ Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson are happily divorced, Joe Millionaire and Zora Andrich split the prize money and then split up, and Tila Tequila could probably use another Shot at Love.
With true love taking longer to find amidst changing economic tides and shifting gender roles – and dating apps such as Tinder and OKCupid providing distractions in the meantime – relationship-themed unscripted programming reflects a reality in which traditional romance is taking a backseat to alternative arrangements.
“Dating and relationships are very different than they were 15 years ago,” Adam Reed, executive VP of Thinkfactory Media, tells realscreen. “Now you’re swiping on your phone and you’re deciding who you want, who you don’t. You’ve never really met them in person, and now you’re going on a date with them. I think all bets are off in the dating and relationship world as a society right now because there are more ways to find a significant other than there’s ever been.”
Reed is helping out in the match-making department with Thinkfactory’s forthcoming TLC series Married by Mom and Dad, which finds four singles handing the reins to their love lives over to those who know them best.
“They’re at the moment where they’ve looked at their parents and thought, ‘Maybe they know something I don’t. They know me better than anybody else in the world. I’m going to put this in their hands because whatever I’ve been doing isn’t working,’” explains Nancy Daniels, GM for TLC.
The series – which is to air this fall – is representative of an “unromantic reality” trend of sorts, which sees an overhaul of the relationship space into one that’s focused more on what’s real, rather than what could be. This means exploring the work that comes after the wedding, and reflecting the open-mindedness with which today’s singles approach dating.
But while the series Married at First Sight and Arranged are working for networks such as FYI – which is carving out a space for itself in the reality landscape with a growing stable of relationship shows – other programs such as A&E’s swinger series Neighbors with Benefits and WE tv’s couples therapy show Sex Box didn’t last longer than a handful of episodes. Are there limits to how alternative a relationship show can be, and if so, where are viewers drawing the line?
One of the first shows to tackle trouble in paradise was WE tv’s Marriage Boot Camp, which in 2013 launched with a “Bridezillas” version, and last year debuted a “Reality Stars” edition. The Thinkfactory Media-produced series sees a number of conflicted couples live together and participate in an intensive marriage boot camp with counselors Elizabeth Carroll and Jim Carroll.
“The celebrities we have on Marriage Boot Camp, of course they’re loud and at times outrageous, but beyond the salaciousness and outrageousness of what they’re doing, you as a viewer can watch – whether you’re in a relationship or not – and you can see yourself reflected in them,” says Reed.
REINVIGORATING THE GENRE
As for one show that has been a trailblazer in romantic programming, Reed doesn’t miss a beat in citing FYI’s Married at First Sight as the first in the “new wave” of relationship shows.
“I think it made other networks and producers stand up and go, ‘Wait, the relationship space doesn’t just have to be flat-lined, female-oriented and the same old show. We can do something different, reinvigorate and re-energize the genre,’” says Reed.
The Kinetic Content-produced series – in which couples get married without ever having met, and then decide to stay together or divorce – was the ultimate risk for a fledgling network, but has paid dividends. In April, FYI debuted Arranged, where American couples enter arranged relationships orchestrated by their families, and in May greenlit The Seven Year Switch, in which restless spouses live with strangers for two weeks while re-evaluating their marriages.
“We don’t have the benefit of several decades of an established audience the way our competitors do, so we have to be more involved to get viewers to sample us,” says Gena McCarthy, senior VP of programming and development for the net.
“We have to be bold in our creative choices, but beneath the bold headlines of a Seven Year Switch title is a deeply credible, smart, thoughtful and playful approach.”
Indeed, McCarthy assures that while FYI is taking numerous swings within the relationship space, the net treads carefully when it comes to taste.
“I often share a phrase with my team that someone taught me 20 years ago: ‘provocative concept, credible treatment,’” she says. “We applied this to Married at First Sight, a concept some feared would be tawdry and cheap.
“If Married at First Sight is the honeymoon stage, The Seven Year Switch is the next phase, where cumulative issues surface when two people have lived together for nearly a decade. I think that’s a relatable thing for viewers.”
SEX VS. RELATIONSHIPS
Elsewhere, two series that provoked viewers but with less successful results were A&E’s Neighbors with Benefits, which followed a group of Ohio swingers and was cancelled after two episodes, and WE tv’s Sex Box, an American remake of the Channel 4 series in the UK, which was pulled after five episodes.
Lauren Gellert, EVP of development and original programming for WE tv, maintains the series, in which couples have sex in a large on-set box and then discuss the experience with therapists, may have been a bold swing for the network, but was still a valid exploration of real relationships.
“It was just a different way of doing it, and we’re still kind of looking at that show and thinking about how we might retool it,” says Gellert.
“Is our culture a little bit shy when it comes to talking about sex? Probably. Should it be? I don’t think so,” she added. “I think sex helps the marriage and helps the relationship.”
Reflecting on Sex Box, Marriage Boot Camp counselor Elizabeth Carroll says she watched the show with interest, but believes it failed because it lacked the “deeper work” audiences want to see in the relationship space.
“[Viewers] weren’t necessarily looking for the salacious, ‘I want to see people having sex’ thing,” says Carroll. “They were like, ‘Okay, I’ll deal with the box thing but now I want to see the hearts and souls of these people and the struggles that they have.’ People want answers. They want to be educated. They want to watch these couples and say, ‘Oh, there’s a takeaway for me personally.’”
Reed adds that North Americans may be opening up, but viewers are still wary when shows cross over from marriage and relationships into sex.
“Our society has a level of tolerance about how much sex and intimacy you can really talk about before it becomes – in certain people’s minds – off-putting,” says the exec. “And that may change as our society gets even more freedom… but I think the difference in the determination is the focus on sex versus relationships.”
Ultimately, most networks – like singles – are keeping their options open. TLC’s entry into the relationship arena with 90 Day Fiance, in which couples in long-distance relationships use a 90-day visa to unite and determine if they should get married, was another risk that paid off. Now, as the net goes into production on Married by Mom and Dad, Nancy Daniels is keeping the big picture at heart.
“I think that people are trying different avenues to find lasting love, and I don’t think the traditional way has been working so they’re willing and open to try different ways,” says Daniels.
“After many years of success in the bridal space, as we’re branching out into relationships and not going at it in a typical ‘dating show’ way, it seems like a core element that people express is finding long and lasting love. And I think it’s an area ripe for exploration.”