10 of the Best Dating Shows That Actually Teach You Something About Love

10 of the Best Dating Shows That Actually Teach You Something About Love

I’m not here to judge reality dating shows. Not even a little. TV trash or TV treasure, that’s all in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes watching pretty people and their drama is, oddly enough, the perfect way to relax. If one s looking for validation in that type of entertainment, it’s entirely fair to suggest that we can learn as much from questionable behaviour and poor judgement as we can from watching people make solid life choices.

Still, there are dating shows that try a little harder or, at least, have lessons for us that go beyond “wear sunscreen and bring a lot of condoms.” Sometimes the lessons are, broadly speaking, cultural: People talk about “modern dating” like it’s all one thing, but there are as many variations between queers in the midwest and straights in NYC as there are between singles in Chicago and Seoul. Regions, cultural backgrounds, and even relative neurodivergences all play a part in complicating things (for better and for worse). So it’s instructive to take a look at shows that take a stab at exploring the reasons why dates work, and why they don’t — even between people who are otherwise compatible.

Love on the Spectrum (2019– )

Exploring the dating world for individuals on the autism spectrum, each season of Love on the Spectrum introduces a number of individuals who’ve struggled in finding love, sex, and romance as adults, and who receive a bit of coaching and guidance (as well as some matchmaking) along the way. The second season revisits some of the cast (and newly formed couples) of the first, while the third starts fresh. It’s a positive and family-friendly dating show that touches on unique challenges, and also makes clear how tough it can be to be yourself in a world that doesn’t always reward that.

It’s also instructive to watch the show with a critical eye; the first season, in particular, received high marks for good intentions but the tone could be infantilizing. Some of that survives in the latter two seasons, but a bit less so. The show’s respectful tone is, in some ways, part of the problem: Where’s the horny, trashy reality show for neurodivergent daters? The autism spectrum is an incredibly broad umbrella, and sometimes Love on the Spectrum is a bit too cutesy for its own good. We could use a few more shows like this, with others that offer different perspectives.

Indian Matchmaking (2020– )

Different cultures, very obviously, view marriage and matchmaking very differently. So, with the descriptively named Indian Matchmaking, we’re moving back toward the trashy side of the dating-reality world for a show that courts a bit of controversy by its very nature. Some Indian audiences have felt that the show engages in stereotypes about their culture, and many take offence, broadly, at the very idea of a professional matchmaking.

Here, it’s Mumbai matchmaker Sima Taparia, a pro who looks to match the people based on every criteria she can possibly think of (size, shape, job, income, even horoscope), attempting to put people together to maximise compatibility. Ultimately, I’m not sure that’s any more effective in the long-term than less rigorous modes of courtship, but I’m not sure it’s any less. Indian Matchmaking represents a blending of a more traditional Indian style, in which a community of elders and aunties have enormous sway over who gets married and when, with a more modern sense of individuality.

Dating Around (2019– )

Everything about Dating Around (the lighting, music, format, etc.) is trying to sell its audience on the idea that this show is different. That it’s serious, even if its premise does involve a single person going on a series of blind dates in a single episode. Often that type of staging is a lie, meant to convince us that we’re watching something more tasteful than we actually are — but here it’s kind of legit. If it’s not quite a dating documentary, it’s at least a show that’s a bit more rom-com and a bit less Temptation Island.

The real innovation here is in the diversity of the dates, at least in comparison to other dating shows that tend to be much more limited. Here, individuals of various skin colours, ages, and sexual orientations get paired off on trial dates (within reason, of course — gay men, for instance, aren’t set up with straight women). The result is, well, a LOT of typical dating show type scenarios, with fairly sketchy people engaging in sketchy behaviour…but, since that’s not the point of the show, there are also some real genuine interactions, and moments when even bad dates turn into something interesting.

Transamerican Love Story (2008)

Done very much in the style of The Bachelor, but with fewer shocking twists, Transamerican Love Story takes us all the way back to the reality TV landscape of 2008 — which I’d like to suggest was a whole different world…except that a lot of the same shows are still running with the same formats. The cameras have gotten better, though! Otherwise, I might give 2008 the leg up on the modern era in its progressiveness: a handful of solid queer-themed shows debuted around the time, and those remain a relative rarity. This is one of the better and most charming ones.

Starring writer/activist/actress Calpernia Addams, the show sees her being pursued (again, in full Bachelor style) by straight cisgender men who are all open to the idea of a relationship with a trans woman. The show won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Program.

Ready to Love (2018– )

Ready to Love, an original from Oprah’s OWN network, does a couple of things differently: First, it’s focused on Black contestants, which itself is good to see in a reality dating world that often sees faces of colour more as seasoning than as the main dish. It also focuses on older (meaning, sadly, 30s+), and financially successful singles. Rich people aren’t rare in reality shows, but middle-aged people are a bit less common.

The seasons tend to be set in different locations (the most recent sixth and seventh were set in Miami and Washington, D.C. respectively) and there’s the typical emphasis on pretty people in pretty locations. Nevertheless, the show’s focus is on individuals interested in commitments more than simply dating or sex, and so tends to feel less exploitative than similar shows. It’s been a massive hit for OWN.

Don’t confuse this with Ready FOR Love, an NBC dating show from a few years back.

12 Dates of Christmas (2020–2021)

Who are you going to bring home for Christmas dinner? The scenario doesn’t stress me out, as I can’t imagine being bothered…but the question makes for a sound reality dating premise. This isn’t just about a night in the hot tub, but about who you’d feel confident introducing to your family. Here, three principals: Garrett (a gay man), Chad (a straight man), and Faith (a straight woman) are whisked off to an Austrian castle (where else?) with each asked to, eventually, choose the person who’s getting the fateful dinner invitation…with the rejected candidates getting an appropriately dramatic expulsion from the castle.

Because the show’s premise is a bit more…wholesome, shall we say, than others, there’s more time to focus on actual relationship dynamics and conversations. There’s plenty of genuinely fascinating interplay between the various participants, with conversations often turning on the need to be frank and honest with the person across the table — but also on the danger of being too frank and honest too soon.

There’s also a totally straight Disney movie of the same name, so make sure you know which 12 Dates you’re getting.

Married at First Sight (2014– )

If these shows are about finding lessons in love, there’s a very clear lesson from this one: DO NOT get married at first sight. The Lifetime series brings in a panel of experts (psychologists, sexologists, sociologists, marriage counselors, etc.) to pair off couples who agree to marry, and to stay married for at least eight weeks. What’s fascinating here is less the premise in and of itself, but the process that the couples go through in mapping out their new relationship with the experts on hand. Many/most couples can’t afford even typical relationship therapy, much less consultations with a series of experts, and, as a result, there’s a lot of insight to be gleaned about healthy habits and means of communication, even if you’re not planning to get married to someone you’ve just met.

(The show is widely available, but different streamers have different seasons. So you might have to shop around if you’re looking for a specific cast.)

Fire Island (2017)

Fire Island took a lot of heat from both straight and queer viewers when it came out way back in 2017. The show about six conventionally attractive gay men living together in a summer house on Fire Island was seen by some as a harbinger of the decline of western civilisation, or as an assemblage of tired gay stereotypes. There’s no real plot here, just a bunch of gym rats having a good time, mostly, in a pretty location. Empty calories? Absolutely. But that’s bread-and-butter for dating/reality shows. And, even if it is heightened for television, it is representative of a certain (if very specific) style of cis-gay-male summer vacation living. There probably aren’t great lessons here to apply to your own life, but there is a bit of a moral: Queer folx are out there being just as sweaty and horny as straight people, with no more shame.

Single’s Inferno (2021– )

Sold to American audiences as a look at Korean dating culture, I’m not sure that the show is entirely representative: Five men and four women are sent to live on a remote (and very hot) island called, appropriately, “Inferno,” where they’re meant to live in Survivor-esque conditions (well, a glamping version of Survivor, anyway) without revealing anything of their backgrounds or work lives. Each has a mailbox, and if they receive a postcard from another contestant and agree to it, they’re both sent to an adjacent island paradise for a night — the live-action equivalent of two people both swiping right. So, it’s a lot of very conventionally pretty people who clearly spend much of their free time working out…nothing new there.

But there is an inevitable cultural component here, and it’s in the attitudes of the contestants. It would be easy to generalise, of course, but among this cast of well-off, attractive, and fit individuals, there’s really no one playing the jerk role. High-maintenance? Maybe a bit entitled? Certainly. But there are no genuine creeps. That doesn’t necessarily speak to the Korean dating scene, but it almost certainly speaks to the interests of the Korean audiences who made a hit of a show with all of the sweaty hook-ups of American shows, but none of the skeeviness.

The Courtship (2022– )

It’s tempting be snarky and suggest that you might be better off picking up the Jane Austen novel of your choice if you’re interested in learning about regency-era courting rituals — but, the sad truth is, Austen was selling a fantasy, as well, and one that only the very poshest folks could even begin to aspire to. Filmed at stately Castle Howard, in York (also a location for Bridgerton), sees Nicole Rémy (in its first season) being courted by 16 contestants in true (or, at least, true as we imagine it) regency style: letters, fancy dress, and chaperones. That’s possibly the most significant deviation from the modern — dates are generally in front of an audience that must also be suitably impressed.

It’s always instructive to compare and contrast different styles of dating, and The Courtship suggests the ways in which we’ve advanced (the woman at the show’s centre makes that much clear), and the things we could learn: Would more traditional manners and handwritten letters be such a bad thing?

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