Australia is mad for the love search. We have graduated from Perfect Match - a light-hearted dating gameshow involving a Compatibility Robot – to The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, First Dates, Married at First Sight and, in its own way, Seven Year Switch.
But things have changed since the eighties. In Perfect Match, participants chose their date from three contestants hidden behind a screen. Their questions were banal and impersonal, no-one was humiliated, and though there was a winner, no-one lost. More importantly, no-one was expected to fall in love. It was all a bit of fun.
The Bach’s, First Dates, and Married at First Sight are different. There is a huge amount at stake for the participants, and, in a different sense, for the viewers. Participants bare their souls, both to their potential partners and to the audience. There are definite winners and losers. And we, the viewers, revel in the drama of it all. Without the high stakes, without the losses, we wouldn’t be interested in watching.
We tell ourselves we tune into these shows to see people falling in love. But really, that’s not what keeps us watching, episode after episode. We may enjoy the love stories, and get some vicarious pleasure from the successes, but our true gratification comes from the heartbreaks.
Take The Bach’s, for example. We know from the start that the Bachelor or Bachelorette will walk away with one of the contestants. And of course, there is suspense in the story, wondering who the Chosen One will be. But this isn’t enough to sustain us through a series, or else we would just tune in for the final episode. What hooks us in are the conflicts and the dramas, and the ongoing rejection of the unsuccessful candidates.
We may enjoy the love stories, and get some vicarious pleasure from the successes, but our true gratification comes from the heartbreaks.
The Rose Ceremonies are the key to the success of the Bachelor. They are as theatrical as the producers can manage, complete with the close ups of the quivering lips of the losers, and their post-humiliation debriefs to the camera.
Each rejection is a mini-drama, and the final rejection of each series the highlight. And of course, if there is off screen drama this is even better. We love the romance, we revel in the happy endings, but when ‘Love Rat’ Blake Garvey dumped the winner for the second runner up after Series Two, we, the audience, went wild. There were endless headlines and endless tweets, and a celebrity was made of Sam Frost, whose jilting at Blake’s hands turned out to be the best career move possible.
Married at First Sight, whilst different in formula, is similar in appeal. Four pairs of strangers are ‘married’ and then required to live together for three months before deciding whether to commit permanently. At the time of airing of the second series, one couple from the first series remain together, which is heartwarming and lovely. But far more column space and social media coverage is given to Lachlan and Clare, who split shortly after the series aired and proceeded to bitch about each other to the media.
Now, in the latest series, with the ‘marriages’ just having taken place, there is much social media coverage of the couples. But the audience are far less excited about the compatibility of certain couples than they are about the dismay of others. (Take Jono declaring ‘Oh shit,’ when he first sees his bride.) And producers know this. Each preview gives us what we are looking for – crying brides, angry grooms, dejected looking couples. We don’t watch the show for the love. We watch the show for the disasters.
In First Dates, there is no commitment, just pairs of complete strangers having dinner together then agreeing to or refusing a second dates. It’s adorable when the couples have obvious chemistry, but what we really tune in for are the awkward, car crash moments (the one with the vagina joke was a particular thrill), and for the straight-to-camera interviews at the end. Because really, there is little more compelling than one person confessing their attraction to someone who rejects them on air thirty seconds later.
And now, we’ve reached a new high (low?) with Seven Year Switch, in which couples having relationship difficulty attempt to find their way back to each other by sharing a bed and spa baths with an attractive member of the opposite sex. Though I haven’t watched the show, my gut tells me that people are not watching this show for the happy ending.
I well understand viewer’s fascination with car crash TV and heartbreak. I can barely look away myself. But when I recall those innocent days of Perfect Match, I can’t help but despair at how jaded we all have become.