[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for the finale of Netflix’s reality series Love Is Blind.]
“Is love blind?” Vanessa Lachey dramatically asks while introducing the Netflix reality dating show she hosts with her husband, Nick Lachey. The show seems to argue that it is, right down to the title. The Love Is Blind finale, in which only two of the five couples who made it to the altar ended up going through with their weddings, makes sure to get footage of the rejected parties agreeing with the titular premise, even if it didn’t work out for them this time. But that question is a red herring. What’s much juicier is the question hidden behind the gimmick: “What happens when people who connect with each other on reality TV return to actual reality?”
Love Is Blind is framed as a social experiment for the Tinder age. In a dating pool entirely focused on looks — potential romantic partners swipe left or right based on looking at a mirror selfie or two — it can be hard to know whether you’re loved for your heart and soul, or for your gorgeous face and hot body. At least that’s how it feels to the 15 men and 15 women who signed up to find love on a Netflix dating show. By way of introduction, several contestants tell the camera that they’re excited to get rid of distractions and get to know someone on a deeper level. But at the same time, they worry: one man says, “They can’t see how fly I am.”
In order to test whether people can connect without seeing each other, Love Is Blind’s producers built a facility outfitted with 30 adjacent pods. The futuristic-looking octagonal rooms are furnished with fuzzy blankets, alcohol, and an opaque glass wall. Contestants can speak through it, but not see each other. After a few initial rounds of speed dating, those with obvious chemistry can spend as much time together as they want. The only caveat is that if they want to actually see or touch each other, they have to first get engaged, without leaving their respective pods.
It is, to be fair, a bonkers premise. But it’s no wilder than MTV’s Are You The One?, which gamifies compatibility, or ABC’s behemoth Bachelor franchise, which is populated exclusively with hot messes, aspiring influencers, and bland white men.
While “blind dating” is a gimmick meant to lure viewers in, the producers of Love Is Blind seem to understand a crucial concept: watching people fall in love is pretty boring. Only the first two and a half of the 10 total episodes take place inside the facility. During those episodes, the show mainly gives screentime to first dates (good or bad), relationship drama (love triangles, surprise rejections), and proposals. The pod dates and engagements are necessary exposition, but what comes next is much more interesting to watch.
Most reality dating shows follow a single format — The Bachelor whittles down his prospects in a weekly rose ceremony, Flavor of Love contestants compete for dates with Flavor Flav. Another version of Love Is Blind might have stayed in the facility for an entire season, treating the engagements as a “win,” and sending the happy couples off into the sunset. Instead, the rest of the show’s run follows them all the way to the altar.
Six couples end up getting engaged at the end of the pod “experiment,” and are immediately whisked away to a Mexican vacation. It marks the first time they’ve been able to talk in person — not to mention kiss or even touch each other — and it’s immediately clear that some of the couples aren’t as compatible in “real life” as they were when separated by a glass wall. Diamond and Carlton initially bonded over their shared faith and upbringing. But immediately after landing in Mexico, Carlton started acting uncharacteristically macho, asking Diamond if she wants to “make daddy feel good.” His radically altered behavior confuses her, but the viewers know that his new persona is coming from a place of fear; Carlton is bisexual, and has a lot of anxiety around telling his fiancée.
When Carlton finally does reveal his sexuality to Diamond, her chilly reaction is clearly not what he hoped for. They eventually have a blowout fight, and both of them say pretty nasty things. She feels blindsided and accuses him of lying to her. He feels rejected and lashes out. They break up, and both leave the show feeling wronged. This is the point where the show feels most exploitative — milking messy human emotions for reality-show drama can be hard to stomach — but it’s also a turning point. Everything that happens before this fight feels like a different show than what comes after.
Love Is Blind starts out with a pretty established dating-show formula: cast telegenic single people, put them in an unusual matchmaking environment, stoke drama, and film what unfolds. With these types of shows, contestants are often flattened into one-dimensional characters, through a combination of the show’s editing and manipulation by producers. The scripted show Unreal, based on the creator’s real-life experience as a producer on The Bachelor, introduced language for these archetypes; Contestants on Unreal’s fictional reality show are sorted into “wifey” and “villain” roles.
The first few episodes of Love Is Blind have their share of reality-show caricatures. Barnett, who manages to turn Love Is Blind into his own personal The Bachelor by keeping three women on the hook, is a classic reality-show villain. Ditto to Jessica, who runs to her second choice, Mark, when she’s embarrassed that Barnett finally rejected her. The fight between Diamond and Carlton turns them both into villains.
But something interesting happens after the dust of that blowup settles: those one-dimensional archetypes start to unfold into real, three-dimensional people. After their tropical vacation, the remaining couples return to their Atlanta hometown. They immediately move in together and start grappling with the day-to-day challenges of living with someone for the first time, meeting each others’ friends and family, and negotiating communication styles. Their story about meeting on a reality show and getting engaged without seeing each other becomes just a weird piece of background lore.
Of course Love Is Blind features messy reality-show drama, but the later episodes reveal a lot more about who these people are, which makes their conflicts feel more nuanced. Barnett, who was portrayed as kind of a fuckboy in the pods, asks, “You’re at least paying your minimums though, right?” when he finds out that his fiancée Amber is in deep student-loan debt. His concern comes across as condescending, but it uncovers a layer of financial responsibility that’s surprising from someone so bro-y. He still seems like an asshole, but a recognizable asshole, not a cartoonishly awful one. Barnett and Amber do get married, and it’s easy to predict how their relationship will play out. We all know a couple like this, who stay together despite making each other crazy, justifying it with, “We challenge each other.”
On the flip side, both Jessica and Damian become more entrenched in their “reality-show villain” roles the longer the show goes on. But back in the real world, their “villainous” qualities are explored in more depth. Jessica’s wishy-washiness about Mark wears thin once her friends and his family are more accepting of their age difference than she is. Once Damian and Giannina stop fighting about their hypothetical future and move on to grounded, specific subjects like politics, families, and how much time they spend on their phones, it becomes increasingly clear that he refuses to take responsibility for any of his own shortcomings, and will continue to blame all of the problems in their relationship on her.
The issues that are often cited as reasons for Bachelor breakups — different plans for the future, incompatible communication styles — are on full display in Love Is Blind. It almost feels like a hybrid between a dating-show competition and documentary-style reality shows like Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (which Love Is Blind co-host Nick Lachey starred in with his ex-wife Jessica Simpson) and Married at First Sight (which is also produced by the team behind Love Is Blind). But Love Is Blind carves out a novel new approach within those existing structures.
At the end of the day, Love Is Blind is a reality show that thrives on drama. But the way it evolves into an in-depth exploration of cliché tropes makes it one of the most interesting reality shows currently airing. It’s impressive how it manages to pull off this nuanced take on dating shows while maintaining its delightfully trashy allure.
Much in the same way Rian Johnson used 40 years of Star Wars lore and symbols to turn The Last Jedi into a deconstruction of Star Wars baggage, the Love Is Blind producers, knowingly or not, used reality-show tropes to deconstruct a particular style of reality TV. The Last Jedi builds up Rey’s Jedi training as important and monumental, until Yoda’s Force ghost shows up to make the bold claim that she doesn’t need to follow old dogma, and shouldn’t. Love Is Blind doesn’t go so far as to show a beloved character burning down the symbolic epicenter of its lore. (What would that be? The Bachelor mansion? The isolation pods?) But like The Last Jedi, it starts off following an established pattern, then veers off in a different, but still recognizable direction, exploring new facets of old structures.
Though Lauren, Cameron, Amber, and Barnett are celebrated as dating-show “winners,” Love Is Blind undercuts that moment of triumph. By the time they get to “I do,” the show has already proved that the final “win” doesn’t really mean anything. At the risk of sounding just as cliché as a reality-show host, what matters is the journey, which doesn’t end just because the cameras stopped rolling.
All 10 episodes of Love Is Blind are streaming on Netflix now.