Search For MILF Island: On Reality TV's Extreme-Matchmaking Revolution

According to IMDB, many people who like VH1's new self-explanatory reality show Dating Naked have also enjoyed a 2000 home video titled Totally Nude Aerobics. Which makes sense: Both titillate via strategic pixilation. What's different this time is the tantalizing prospect of watching real human beings find real love.

The young series, which is apparently teasing a wedding during tonight's episode, introduces us to two new contestants, baring all in a picturesque island setting, mingling with a few similarly au natural newcomers, and bantering awkwardly until they've decided who they shared enough in common with (besides a lack of humility) to inspire a second (presumably clothed) date. Blind Date without the foreplay (or a far less buttoned-up Love Connection), it's the reality-courtship industry's modern answer to trashy, bygone cable promiscuity-fests like ElimiDATE (2001-2006) and MTV's Next (2005-2008). But it also anchors a present trend in what we might call "extreme matchmaking."

Or so VH1, Bravo, and the newly rebranded FYI Network (formerly known as Bio) are hoping. Each channel has launched an ambitious new would-be franchise this summer, all scrounging for any as-yet-undiscovered meat left on the bones of the reality-romance beast that has sustained The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for more than a decade.

Alongside Dating Naked, there's Bravo's social-media-savvy The Singles Project, which plucks six New York City society types (cut from the familiar Real Housewives cloth) and puts their dating fate in viewers' hands via real-time online interaction. But the most intriguing of the trio is FYI's polarizing Married at First Sight, which hooks up three couples based on "scientific" data and expertise; legally binds them within minutes of their, you know, meeting each other; and sends them off on a honeymoon and a five-week, on-camera cohabitation experiment to see if the union sticks.

None of these new shows feature celebrities looking for love, though the Singles Project participants certainly relish any brushes with stardom. (One is a celebrity eyebrow stylist.) Nor does anyone seem foremost incentivized by cash prizes and the lure of a solo spinoff series. After all, where does one really go after arranged nuptials and unclothed tandem ATV rides?

But maybe that's a case of producers learning from past mistakes. It's been five years since Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on VH1's Rock of Love spinoff Megan Wants a Millionaire, murdered his girlfriend Jasmine Fiore and took his own life while the show's first season was still broadcasting. VH1 immediately pulled the plug, and production company 51 Minds—whose website proudly boasts of having been "credited for creating the celebreality genre" (think Flavor of Love,et al)—acknowledged a Canadian court's clerical error during background checks, and has since quietly gone about bankrolling decidedly less inflammatory fare like Alien Encounters and Whodunit?

At around that same period, ABC took a chance on a U.S. adaptation of a Dutch gimmick show called Blind Love, refashioning it as the also self-explanatory Dating in the Dark. But news of Jenkins' horrific crime, and viewers and industry execs' subsequent uneasiness, seemed to coincide with a general audience exhaustion with bastardizations of the reality-romance premise. (30 Rock had already signaled the genre's demise in 2008 with the sadly still-fictional MILF Island). Dark dimmed its lights barely a year after debuting, and the sub-niche strivers that enterprises like 51 Minds emboldened mostly folded their tents and searched for outlier families and desperate debutantes to exploit, leaving heightened manipulation of televised chemistry in the capable hands of Chris Harrison and the Bachelor/Bachelorette juggernaut.

But half a decade later (and despite pseudo-salacious misfire mutations like Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise, both mere Paradise Hotel ripoffs), the formula had gotten stale. We'd all grown weary of watching homecoming kings and queens share their umpteenth helicopter ride over Fantasy Island amid patronizing allusions to intimacy, so as not to upset ABC's friendly tides of ad revenue and steady ratings. The time was right to develop counterprogramming that took to heart the consequences of pure exploitation and respected audience sensitivity, but also appreciated that some of us are less attracted to childish fantasy than adult escape.

Bravo in particular was poised to take advantage, having burnished their reputation as the singular source for a certain kind of lifestyle drama, the sort that's breezy and beautiful, but with spit-shine and bite. Yet their assorted Real Housewives are getting long in the tooth.

Enter The Singles Project, whose basic, fussy gist is as follows: Each of the six "stars" go on a date, which is televised only a few days later; mid-episode, viewers are asked to use strategic social-media hashtags to determine, say, which of three online suitors digital-marketing manager Kerry should give a whirl. Or to participate in polls speculating as to who of the sextet is most likely to find love, with graphics tallying up the results as they come in. (It's not any less confusing onscreen.) The idea being to push these unattached mini-moguls closer to companionship by season's end, like Cyrano guiding Roxanne into the arms of extreme-matchmaking's least odious Christian.

This allows young, hip audiences with laptops at arm's reach to help give the likes of twentysomething celebrity eyebrow stylist (yep, and yelp) Joey Healy instant feedback on dates brokered by friends and colleagues, and possibly collectively correct some of his typical errant-hookup behavior. But there's a lot of visual clutter here: The occasional Twitter-poll pop-ups are distracting and awfully noisy alongside the usual teasers for whatever's on Bravo next. And two hours into the experiment (it premiered last week, with new episodes Tuesdays), the concept feels so desperately modern, the contestants so effortlessly plucked from willing ubiquity that it lacks both can't-miss buzz and a beating heart.

On the other hand, Tuesday night's Married at First Sight is almost unbearably intimate at times, a perfect gamble for the fledgling FYI network between safer bets like B.O.R.N. to Style and Epic Meal Empire. What begins with a rote casting process quickly proceeds to a trifecta of wedding receptions, lots of handi-cam admissions of honeymoon naughtiness, and, for most of an episode's run time, roughly shot documentary footage of virtual strangers slugging and hugging it out ass-backwards from "I do" to "What the (or when to) fuck?" The "experts" whose research and insights aligned these willing couples (who were, in truth, the only men and women left standing after an increasingly candid and, to most who attended, terrifying audition reveal) do eventually intervene in times of duress.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7SrEN...But Married is, by luck or intent, a mostly transparent invitation into romance done inside-out, a controversial exploration into what might happen if Westerners considered something more direct than the randomness of online dating, blind setups, barhopping, and constant compromise. Roughly halfway through this first season, here's what you get: some genuine, provocative matters of the heart; at least one case of panic-stricken cold feet; the requisite TV-persona egomania that not even this show is immune to; lots of old-married-couple cracking heads; the working-through of honest-to-god relationships you really want to root for; and, naturally, varying amounts of sex between artificially comparable partners.

It's a show that encourages real leaps of faith—like couples therapy, financial planning, and adjusting one's personal schedules to make one's self truly present and emotionally available— as opposed to bungee jumps off Caribbean cliffs or trust falls into social-media omniscience. (Although, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that First Sight wife Jamie Otis had previously turned to TV for true love on Ben Flajnik's iteration of The Bachelor—season 16, 2012, but you knew that, right?—and you can't help but wonder if standoffish newlywed Vaughn Copeland, a self-professed non-quitter by nature, is just following through on a larkish challenge run amok.)

As for Dating Naked, well, it's VH1 operating in its comfort zone, with a nostalgic, curious itch for playfully placing extreme personalities in impossibly silly, lusty situations: couples body painting, body surfing, and liquored-up skinny dips in the hotel pool.

And they haven't lost a step. This show is, if nothing else, the most self-secure among the new breed of extreme-matchmaking forays. By the time the first two episodes had aired in July, there had been more than one Israeli exhibitionist, not to mention a transplanted Brooklynite named Wee Wee falling for a Long Island macho man who had married and divorced a previous partner by 19. Not to be outdone, the third episode featured a loose cannon named Katie, who finally tipped things over into parody with a profanity-laced tirade at VH1, her fellow competitors, and host Amy Paffrath (though, incidentally, Katie was spot-on in calling Amy out on the hypocrisy of her being fully dressed) after a zip-line incident gone awry that led to a black eye.

Although, go figure: This round-robin of incredibly awkward, rarely sexy nude wooing has apparently produced a Genuine Couple (though VH1 won't reveal who's tying the knot until tonight), which is more than we can yet say assuredly for First Sight or Singles Project. It's not true romance—it's not even MILF Island—but just the hint of a genuine connection is all we need to commit.


Kenny Herzog is a former editor for brands including CMJ and HEEB, and a present-day pop-culture writer currently contributing to Rolling Stone, Vulture, Made Man, and many more. He's on Twitter.

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