And during these weeks and months, my TV has been telling me that there is no such thing as a relationship built from the spark of a chance meeting. Technology has long since triumphed over kismet, while covid-19 killed off whatever remained of old-school, casual dating.
What could be more dangerous than prolonged courtships that involve such germy proceedings as actually seeing and touching a person before you marry them or get engaged? As my colleague Emily Yahr recently explained in her finely reported analysis of 20 years spent watching reality dating shows, our relationship goals have been thoroughly fouled by fairy-tale expectations and rosy, tropey notions of true love. It was all a big ruse.
Meanwhile, America’s necessary but seemingly endless prohibition on human contact has amplified a weird drumbeat I started hearing back in February, during the brief but frenzied response to Netflix’s compellingly simple reality series, “Love Is Blind.” The key aspect of that show observed single men and women going on “dates” in a closed environment, where talking and listening were the only forms of contact, separated by a solid wall. Those who formed connections got engaged; then and only then did they get to see each other, at which point they were headed for a wedding day.
What seemed to be a gimmick was in fact presaging a certain underlying awareness in pandemic times. What’s to be gained now (besides sickness and death) from physical dating in restaurants, shouting in crowded bars, making out, fooling around, holding hands, cuddling — who would risk all that without a stronger guarantee of commitment?
Skip the former modes of courtship and get right down to it: Swab the nostrils, exchange the lab results along with the wedding vows — ministered by a Zoom officiant with Zoomed-in loved ones present. After that, isolate together, forever.
All of which is to say that Lifetime’s extremely addictive reality hit, “Married at First Sight” (airing Wednesdays), has never looked more relevant or provided more trenchant insight into the all-or-nothing approach to love.
Five weeks into its 11th season, which is set in New Orleans, the show still plays as a social experiment — the marriages are arranged by relationship experts — but its consequences are real enough. The six couples did indeed get legally married earlier this year, in ceremonies at a nice downtown hotel that were attended by a smattering of friends and family members (some guests are still horrified enough to boycott). The weddings featured all of the trappings: the dress, the flowers, the tuxedos, the reception, the corny toasts, the dancing, the rose petals sprinkled across the plush white bedding in the honeymoon suite.
The show’s concept, as advertised, holds firm: None of the brides and grooms have ever met, even though this season featured two surprising cracks in the veneer: Because of a producer’s errant text, one of the brides, Karen, learned the full name of her husband-to-be, Miles, hours before she would walk down the aisle and meet him — long enough to scour Miles’s social media accounts and determine that he’s not really her type. She decided to go through with it anyhow.
Another couple, Amelia and Bennett, had briefly met each other before at a party, which they realized as soon as Amelia walked down the aisle with a look of open-jawed shock. “Married at First Sight” took this risk by setting this season in a relatively small and socially insular city like New Orleans. Fortunately Bennett and Amelia are both singular oddballs — he’s an artistic director for theater companies and she just finished med school; she doesn’t shave her armpits and he thinks that’s a marvelous expression of her womanhood. As tempted as a viewer might be to salute “Married at First Sight’s” panel of expert counselors at pairing these two, could there have really been other options in a 50-mile radius?
Episodes of “Married at First Sight” clock in at two hours (including tons of commercials) and still manage to leave a fascinated viewer in a state of wanting more. The New Orleans couples have all spent their first nights together in the wedding hotel, where they all decided to wait to have sex, which has become a sort of understood ethic over several seasons — but may also have something to do with the mood-killing cameras and harsh lighting that follow them everywhere.
After a gauntlet of morning-after brunches, during which each newlywed had a get-acquainted talk with their sudden in-laws (and endured the show’s strange ritual of interrogation, at which the parents generally reveal themselves to be intensely protective of their adult children), the couples are all honeymooning at the same Cancun beach resort, constantly comparing notes on their experiences and explaining their feelings to the camera.
Next comes eight weeks of cohabitation, which you can bet “Married at First Sight” will stretch into as many episodes as possible. After that, the show’s marriage counselors will ask each couple if they want to stay married. Eleven seasons in, the producers are very good at cutting the show into a nail-biting crapshoot, convincing viewers that even the most disastrous pairings might yet be salvageable. (At this point, the most worrisome match might be that of Christina, a flight attendant who loves global adventures, and Henry, a medical job recruiter who’s about as interesting as this morning’s unbuttered toast.)
The real swerve this season (yet to come, but hinted at in Lifetime’s promos) is that the couples will soon be facing the earliest days of the pandemic. This presumably adds another layer to their decision-making. Instead of asking “Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?” the question becomes more urgent: Is this the only person I want to be around for this month, and the next, and the next, and the next, and so on? In the light of covid-19, “forever” takes on a whole new shape, not only by raising the show’s stakes, but by giving all its couch-bound fans a new perspective on the experiment. The provocative idea of marrying a complete stranger seems no more ludicrous than the ways we’ve already been conducting our relationships in the Internet age, swiping our way to permanent solitude.
“Indian Matchmaking,” Smriti Mundhra’s fascinating, eight-part docuseries for Netflix that premiered last month, trains its cameras on Sima Taparia, a Mumbai marriage consultant who travels hither and yon (mostly between India and the United States) to help single people of Indian heritage find “suitable” spouses. Though Taparia works exhaustively to meet her clients’ demands (consulting with face-readers and astrologers along the way), she’s clearly working in a culture that has modernized enough to distrust total reliance on the old-fashioned arranged marriage.
That’s too bad, because it would certainly make Taparia’s job easier if these folks would just trust her, and their ancestors, and take the plunge. Between Taparia’s frustrating attempts to make matches (and a viewer’s frustrating attempt to read through some of the coded talk of “good families” and other class signifiers), Mundhra interviews couples who built successful, loving marriages without hardly knowing one another. Their families arranged the union and off they went.
Adding to this heap, I also found myself helplessly drawn-in by another Netflix reality series, made in 2019 and imported from Australia, called “Love on the Spectrum,” which walks a very careful and empathetic line as it follows young, neurodiverse adults on the autism spectrum on blind dates. Each of these men and women are fascinating in their unique way; of all the signals and social cues that they may struggle to read, they’ve clearly picked up on society’s idea that a good relationship is a happy thing.
Their dates, however, can be excruciatingly awkward to watch transpire — a viewer aches for them as they search in vain for a common topic or the breezy exchanges the rest of us take for granted. Some of the participants excel at a form of questioning that is blunt and no-nonsense. Listening to them declare their feelings on matters that are either important or exquisitely trivial, and watching as they fearlessly object or disagree to what their date has just said, I found myself thinking: If only the love-seeking couples on “Married on First Sight” could be this open, this direct, from the get-go.
Married at First Sight (two hours) current season airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.
Indian Matchmaking (eight episodes) and Love on the Spectrum (five episodes) are available for streaming on Netflix.