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Single’s Inferno filled the Bachelor-sized hole in my heart

The hottest inferno in the world

Two women and one man sit together under a small canopy in Single’s Inferno. Image: Netflix
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

Single’s Inferno opens with the grand entrance. Contestants take a long walk down a flight of stairs, in full view of the others at the seating area below. It looks stressful. First impressions count, and, of course, the show cuts away to others’ expressions. But none of it is acidic; no one is making accusations or catty jabs. Instead, the mood is excitement and nervousness — everyone is gorgeous and stylish to boot. They’re all here to find a match.

After giving up on The Bachelor, I exhausted so many reality dating shows I found on streaming platforms. I kept getting the ick, thanks to heightened stakes and competitive atmospheres. Love Is Blind, in which contestants get engaged without seeing each other, stressed me out; Too Hot to Handle, which puts hot people on an island and docks their cash prize anytime they hook up, made me more sad than intrigued. But it turns out what I wanted was actually right in front of me. I fell hard for season 2 of South Korean dating show Single’s Inferno, with its warm cast and its understanding of how delightful the mundane details of dating can be.

A woman in a white dress walking down a long staircase in Single’s Inferno season 2. Image: Netflix

In Single’s Inferno, 12 gorgeous singles are sent to a remote island, called “inferno,” and given the chance to escape on dates with one another in “paradise,” a very nice hotel with room service and a pool. Contestants aren’t pressured to propose or stuck with gross plot twists, and they aren’t all fighting over one person. Instead they hang out, compete in silly challenges, and anonymously submit “paradise tickets” indicating who they’d like to go with. Compared with other reality dating shows available on platforms like Netflix, it lowers the stakes — trading shock value, ever-flowing alcohol, and handsy contestants for delightfully awkward flirting.

Its atmosphere bends more Great British Bake Off than, say, Hell’s Kitchen. Think of it like a more wholesome, casual take on Bachelor in Paradise. Production feels less exploitative; no one is voted out and there are plenty of paradise tickets to go around. And while it’s still selling a fantasy — contestants are hot and even “inferno” is gorgeous — it’s a much more low-key version of it.

Three contestants in Single’s Inferno sit under a canopy together. Image: Netflix

The show homes in on tiny moments of frisson, like holding hands with just the tips of fingers, and small acts of care like bringing over a glass of cold water or lighting a furnace. It’s not a flaming pit of horny desire. Contestants try to be subtle about checking out their crush or admitting, “I’m curious about you.” And it doesn’t present rejection like a death sentence, even as it’s honest about the way rejection hurts. Moments of connection feel much more authentic than whatever fabricated tension or grand gesture other dating shows cook up.

And it manages to do all of this without being boring. Single’s Inferno is still entertainingly absurd thanks to its hyperbolic idea of “inferno” and the constraints placed on contestants in terms of what they can and can’t talk about. Paradise is a really wonderful dangling carrot, but inferno is not bad at all. The set is less Survivor episode than nice camping site. Contestants sleep in tents on what appear to be blow-up mattresses. Amenities are speckled across a beautiful beach, including lounging areas, an outdoor gym (of course), and a kitchen. Contestants must cook their own meals from provided ingredients like daikon, egg, and green onion, and have to get water from a well, which they deposit into a working sink. It is decidedly not a hellscape — the show’s intro bumper always calls it the hottest inferno in the world, which is only true if you’re thinking about how hot the contestants are.

It is, however, a kind of hellscape for awkward people (relatable; please send me to season 3), because contestants can’t talk about their age or profession when they’re at inferno — they’ll have to go to paradise to disclose that. Going to paradise for a night requires matching with another contestant. To match, contestants of one gender put a “ticket” in the mailbox of the person they’d like to go with. Contestants of the other gender then go outside one by one and say the name of their chosen person aloud, waiting to see if interest was reciprocated. It creates a layer of anonymity, with everyone figuring out how to express interest without coming on too strong. The viewer often has no idea who will match until they meet up, not to mention whether they’ll have chemistry on their date. Those who don’t match are stuck on inferno. (Which isn’t so bad; contestants have plenty of opportunities to match with different people.)

The female cast of Single’s Inferno season 2 in their sleeping tent. Image: Netflix

But it turns out meeting new people is hard without the reliable crutch of what you do for a living. Without professions to pad conversation, people fall back on talking about the island, who they are “curious” about, and what their hobbies are. Because they are all incredibly ripped, they basically all have the same “hobby,” working out, and default to talking about it. But you, the viewer, have learned about other parts of their life — and you get a strong sense of who might get along, if only they could figure out common subjects to talk about. It’s like eating at a restaurant and spying a very obvious first Hinge date happening at the table next to you, and really rooting for both people to get their act together.

The season 2 cast is particularly bumbling, in terms of finding other things to talk about and hiding their anxieties. The show does not rush to fill its awkward silences, or make contestants appear suave. But that’s also so much of what attraction boils down to — finding someone’s quirks adorable rather than annoying. The show is replete with these moments: Seo-eun finding it cute that Yoong-jae brought a printed-out science report with him for casual reading during a morning on the beach, or Jong-woo, who desperately wants to go to paradise with Seul-ki, helpfully offering her zinc when she is feeling tired.

The show also highlights these cute moments through cutaways to four commentators, who pick apart small details like glances and interactions or discuss whether a couple’s trip to paradise went well. When a contestant (who I won’t spoil) gets to paradise only to walk right into a full-length mirror thinking it’s another room, the four commentators discuss how adorable that gaff makes him. Any other dating show might have just played it for cheap laughs. When another contestant isn’t chosen for paradise, he solemnly tells the camera he will work even harder to be chosen.

Single’s Inferno season 2 contestants stand in front of a gorgeous beach. Image: Netflix

Single’s Inferno ultimately filled the slot in my head where The Bachelor used to live. I watched nearly every iteration — The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Single’s Inferno’s most direct comparison, Bachelor in Paradise — during the 2010s. At the time, the series played up its campiness, offering official bingo cards to go with a drinking game, which I did with friends. But the show quickly went from “so bad it’s fun” to truly depressing. The basic premise used to be shocking: the contrast between conservative ideas around dating, like asking the father for permission to propose or being there for “the right reasons,” set against the show’s star dating dozens of people at once with the expectation of marrying one of them.

As the concept lost its shock value, the show became even more fixated on concocted salaciousness, in uniformly poor taste. These range from “twists” like men voting on which of two bachelorettes they’d rather date to even more morally gross territory, like a season arc around a bachelor’s virginity and Bachelor in Paradise’s fetishistic view of bisexual women in 2017. Season after season, the show’s abhorrent treatment of its Black cast (when Black contestants were cast at all) also became obvious and painful.

Single’s Inferno adds a bit of humanity back into a genre I thought I would never be interested in again. The contestants aren’t quizzing each other on the purity of intention or drunkenly groping each other. On Single’s Inferno everyone’s a little uncomfortable, but more or less collaborative in spirit — whether cooking together or trying to obsequiously gauge interest. It’s charming to watch people try their best to look cool and casual, and then admit to the camera: I will try my hardest, and hopefully someone will like me. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that “paradise” looks nicer than The Bachelor-style dates, which range from trauma bonding through skydiving to slow dancing in an empty restaurant while a country musician you’ve never heard of sings to you.

Unlike its ilk, Single’s Inferno has a real knack for highlighting how dating can make the mundane truly entertaining, in the same way nursing a crush can make even a small glance feel full of promise. As with any reality television, I’m sure there is so much happening behind the scenes that viewers aren’t really privy to. But I will take this version of reality over the spectacle and shock value any day. (And Han-bin, if you are, for some reason, reading this… Hi.)

Single’s Inferno 2 is on Netflix now. New episodes drop on Tuesdays.