Hi. I don't know where you are, but it's sweltering in New York. A/C is basically necessary to survive these days, but then you read another thing about how much worse climate change is than scientists ever thought and you look at your humming air conditioner and briefly consider turning it off, to do your small part to help the planet. And then you think about all the corporations and government representatives who refuse to change a single thing while telling us that its our pesky love of straws that's killing the planet, and you look at your elderly dog panting away on his little bed, and now you have all the excuse you need to keep the cool air blowing. The world feels catastrophic. Which is why, as we stare down 2+ months of alternating heat waves and devastating storms, the only thing I can bear to think about these days is an MTV reality show.
You know by now, in the year 2019, whether you're a reality TV person or not. (If you're not: no one likes a snob.) If you are, you've probably already sorted out which types of reality shows you'll watch, and which you won't. I like to think I'm a "brainy social competition show" kind of guy based on my love of Survivor, but I unabashedly loved Lindsay Lohan's insane and short-lived MTV reality show earlier this year, so I should stop kidding myself about how intellectual I am. But no matter your preferences, please allow me the chance to sell you on MTV's Are You The One? (The question mark is part of the title and I hate it so much.)
To briefly describe the show: a number of attractive, single young people are picked to live in a house (every MTV reality show ever), where they're tasked with figuring out which other cast member is their "Perfect Match," chosen for them by a shady cabal of "relationship experts"/psychologists/producers/demons. If, at the end of the game, every person has paired up with their true Perfect Match, the house splits $1 million (so they each get, like, $15K, which feels rude but doesn't seem to bother anyone in the cast).
The trick to the show comes from trying to win what is essentially a math game while drunk 24/7, with your emotions constantly defeating all attempts at logic. The best drama almost always springs from two people who have just discovered they're not each other's Perfect Match — and therefore need to break up and start dating other people in the house, for the sake of everyone winning — but refuse to split up, thereby tanking the game for everyone. It is, truly, a diabolical premise. (This article is a very good deep-dive on the genius of the show's format.)
It's always entertaining, endlessly dramatic, and weirdly mathematical. There's an entire community of Are You The One? fans (henceforth referred to as AYTO because I can't deal with the question mark) who spend each week dissecting the probabilities of who is whose perfect match. Basically, it's Jersey Shore + calculus. That said, there's just TOO MUCH TV, as we all know (I haven't even seen Fleabag season 2 yet, please don't cancel me), so every season AYTO would eventually fall off my radar, tragically. But this season they did something different, and it's left me desperate for more episodes. The first seven seasons were all straight couples, but this time every person in the house is sexually fluid. Which means anyone of any gender (or no gender!) could be anyone's match, exponentially increasing the potential for hookups, drama, and MATH.
And, truly, I'm not exaggerating when I tell you I have never seen anything like it on television. It feels groundbreaking in the way the first season of The Real World did. In the first episode, a trans guy and a woman who were hitting it off bonded when she helped him inject his dose of testosterone into his leg. They then proceeded to have sex — the woman telling the camera it was her first hookup with a trans person, and it was no different than hooking up with anyone else; the trans guy telling us testosterone gives him the sex drive of a teenage boy — and then, after she went to bed, the trans guy almost immmmmmediately had sex with someone else.
This scene could have put the porn industry out of business.
The combination of typically trashy reality show drama plus elevated conversations about gender dysphoria, toxic masculinity, and internalized homophobia is intoxicating. Sometimes, the cast is fighting because someone didn't use their preferred pronouns. Other times, they're just fighting because someone's trying to "get with my girl" or whatever.
And because the entire cast is sexually fluid, these kids (because they really are kids to an ancient goblin like me), thankfully, don't seem to feel the pressure that comes from being "the trans person" or "the bi person" on a reality show. They aren't weighted down by the idea that they need to be role models. So they're free to be themselves, showing how messy and complex we all really are. One cast member, Remy, spent the first two episodes with a goblet of red wine clutched in his hand like Cersei Lannister, wandering the house in search of couples he could cause drama with. He was, clearly, the villain of the season. But already by the fourth episode, he's revealed a surprising amount of self-awareness, and has proven to be respectful of people's boundaries in a way other cast members haven't been. So now he's one of the good guys, I think? It's all very complicated, as it should be. The cast feels less like characters on a reality show and more like fleshed-out people, who have embarrassing moments they'll clearly regret in the light of day, but also moments of brutal honesty with themselves, where you can see them actively growing as a person. I've gotten teary-eyed at every episode so far. At a silly dating show!
Even though I don't identify as sexually fluid (SORRY, LADIES), the show makes me feel represented on TV in a way I never have before, as someone who's worked to become more comfortable with calling himself queer rather than gay. It's hard to undo the "gay people are bad" message society gave you in your youth, and it's equally hard to undo the "gay people should be just like straight people" message the mainstream gay community gave you in your adolescence. I've seen shades of my younger self in Max, a white guy from Ohio who moved to Los Angeles and started exploring his bisexual side, but is openly struggling with the idea that being out means being out to everyone, even the people back in Ohio. He feels attracted to a man in the house but isn't sure if he can act on it, especially on TV. We're watching him struggle openly with his feelings back and forth in a way that feels more real than anything you've ever seen on The Bachelor. The stakes are higher than any other dating show, because, ultimately, we're watching people try to become more comfortable with themselves. The actual relationship conflict is secondary to the internal conflict.
The one concern I have is that, so far, the vast majority of the couplings have been same-gender. Which is fine! I famously love gay people! But I'm worried a bit how it will look if a cast of sexually fluid people all end up in relationships with someone of the same gender identity. The cast has already had a lot of really groundbreaking (for TV) conversations about the difficulties of getting anyone in the world to accept your bisexuality — gay people can be just as, if not more, close-minded than straights when it comes to that — and I worry about the message sent if the season ends with everyone choosing the gay option. Am I... rooting for straight relationships? Ugh, what is this show DOING to me.
The show also, so far, hasn't really dealt with race explicitly, which feels like a misstep considering how racist the queer community can be. But we're only four episodes in, so I'm hoping they'll start to discuss it. But in almost all other fronts, they've never shied away from diving into thorny issues. One of the most gripping yet heartbreaking storylines has been the saga of Basit (gender-fluid, they-pronouns) and Jonathan (cisgender, he-pronouns). Basit has their eyes set on Jonathan, whereas Jonathan has his eyes set on dreamy, muscular Justin (but everyone has their eyes set on Justin, including me). Jonathan eventually makes it clear to Basit that he prefers more masculine men's bodies "for health reasons," a completely insane thing to say to anyone, but particularly to Basit, whose arms I would kill for. Most ironic is that Jonathan continuously mis-genders Basit, calling them "he," which implies Jonathan does see Basit as masculine — just not masculine enough. The conversations they've had are remarkably honest and reveal a lot about the individuals involved, as well as the queer community as a whole. I'm sure many viewers haven't seen anyone like Basit before, and had a slew of preconceived notions about them. Watching Jonathan gradually realize that it's both futile and harmful to try to put his arbitrary labels on Basit, maybe the viewers' preconceived notions will fall away as well.
BASIT DESERVES THE WORLD.
At times, I've been reminded of the way I felt at 13, wondering if I was gay, telling myself I wasn't because I didn't act exactly like Jack on Will and Grace or whatever, only to have my mind blown by Richard Hatch on the first season of Survivor. With no access to gay people in real life and only extremely limited exposure to gay people on TV up until that point (and with every single one of them made for a primarily straight audience), Richard Hatch — all ego and shamelessness and outright manipulation and greed, a self-proclaimed "fat naked queer" who, despite his many lies, was always authentically himself — made me sit up and realize that gay people aren't all exactly one way. For a silly reality show designed to bring out the worst in its cast, Survivor blew my teenaged mind and made me start looking at myself differently. I have to imagine there are kids out there watching Are You The One? and — despite the corny challenges, the obvious producer manipulation, the silly "Truth Booth" with its fake body-scanning lasers — seeing something true about themselves, maybe for the first time.
(You can watch the first 8 minutes of the premiere here, if you need an excuse to let yourself get addicted. It's the best thing you can do for yourself this week.)
I hope by now you've read NYMag's bonkers article on drama at a rich Brooklyn preschool. If not, open up a bottle of wine, turn on some sexy music, and treat yourself to a read. It has everything you want: melodramatic librarians, a 3-year-old's artwork selling for $10,000, multiple mentions of Maggie Gyllenhaal, a scandalous NBA player's wife, a vindictive 60-year-old white woman quoting Tupac on Instagram to lash out at her haters.
Best of all, no children appear to have been harmed in the making of this story. When I read it, I kept one eye anxiously closed, waiting for all the drama to start affecting the preschoolers, so let me assuage any fears you may have: the only victims in the story are the egos and reputations of rich Brooklyn assholes. (There is a baffling mention of the fallout that came from a 3-year-old somehow walking themself home from school, which is never revisited. I have a lot of follow-up questions about this article and need the writer to expand it into a full book.)
The end of the article — a two-paragraph monologue by a fired preschool teacher going all surprise twist Bond villain, "I am the reason for your downfall ALL ALONG" — is worthy of a Meryl Streep dramatic reenactment. And now, of course, some of the parents are in the comment section of the article, bickering anonymously about how they came across in the story. I know there's too much TV, but I could definitely make some time in my life for a reality show about these psychos.