Brecht once said: “Even when people speak of higher and lower degrees of pleasure, art stares impassively back at them; for it wishes to fly high and low and to be left in peace, so long as it could give pleasure to them”. He probably wasn’t imagining a blind dating reality show where the contestants wear elaborate prosthetic makeup in order to make romantic choices based on personality instead of looks. But art is subjective.
Let me introduce you to Netflix’s Sexy Beasts, a deliciously unhinged new gladiator in the pheromone-soaked arena of summer reality television. There are no tiny bikinis, rippling pecs, or steamy poolside chats in this dating show, because every bachelor and bachelorette looking for love is decked out in elaborate prosthetic makeup so that they can’t choose a partner based on appearances alone. Each episode, one lucky single goes on a series of dates with three potential matches, disguised as zombies, aliens, dolphins, robots and chickens. The special effects are incredible, the production values are impressive, and the show is absolutely binge-able. The dates are also enviable, and put Love Island’s trestle table to shame, as the creatures embark on ice sculpting classes, playdates with meerkats, axe throwing, and trips to Thorpe Park. The episodes culminate with a big reveal, as the singleton meets their choice face to face for the first time.
Look, I’ll answer the obvious questions. Is it essentially The Dating Game? Yes. Is there an over saturation of reality television shows on the market already? Probably. Have I had time to watch an actual film between an hour of Love Island every night? No. And am I convinced that somewhere in the depths of Netflix’s development offices there is an intern, blindfolded, throwing darts at a wheel of television concepts? Absolutely.
The show is trash (in the traditional sense of the word) but it’s incredibly entertaining, and accidentally profound, because it speaks to a fact of life that’s obvious but often unspoken: people are shallow. First impressions matter, and as hard as we might try to resist it, and as adamantly as we might try to deny it, everyone chooses their romantic partners—at least a little bit—based on looks.
It’s an unavoidable state of affairs that is made glaringly obvious by dating shows like Too Hot to Handle, Ex on the Beach, or Love Island – where beautiful people parade around in a fug of aftershave and awe inspiring confidence talking about “connections” and “journeys” that seem suspiciously like nothing more than hormones on closer inspection. Long term exposure to this content—alongside mainstream Hollywood rom-coms, music videos, health insurance ads—trick us into believing that only beautiful people fall in love.
Did COVID make us more shallow?
The tendency to overlook personality in favour of beautiful hair or a chiselled jaw has only worsened since the COVID pandemic. Working from home, studying from home, and unable to travel (or let’s be honest, accost someone at 3am outside the kebab shop), dating seems to happen almost entirely online, on apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, where distinct and beautiful personalities are reduced to a quivering homogenous mass of sexual potential. Even those apps that offer the opportunity to discuss your interests seem to yield disappointing results. Funnily enough, everyone likes the same stuff: food, holidays (or in dating-speak, “travelling”), The Office (US, not UK), and the great outdoors. It’s boring.
On Hinge, prompts that have been specially designed to elicit original responses all get the same answers. Everyone is competitive about everything, everyone is looking for someone who is “doesn’t take themselves too seriously,” and in an especially bizarre turn of events, everyone seems to have had the same Shower Thought (“who picks up after guide dogs?”). We can’t blame ourselves for turning to looks instead. Dating in 2021 is entirely depressing, especially for people who, like most of us, don’t resemble the sun-kissed gods and goddesses of more ordinary dating television. Don’t get me wrong, I love those shows too (justice for #Feddy), but the whole situation begs the question: is falling in love based on personality alone entirely impossible?
Unfortunately, Sexy Beasts isn’t really equipped to answer the question. For one thing, the episodes are only 20 minutes long, and largely comprise of transplanted Americans trying to figure out whether their potential matches are actually decent looking underneath all the latex. Like most dating shows, it’s also overwhelmingly heterosexual, and most offensively of all, everyone turns out to be at least relatively good looking under the masks. No one is under a 6, and despite the makeup artists’ best attempts, the singles still manage to choose based on height – and in the case of one especially perverted beaver – ass size.
How can we do better, while still watching television?
If you’re looking for a dating show with actual soul, the undisputed king of the genre is First Dates, a show where people of all ages, appearances, abilities and sexual orientations get to know each other on blind dates in the same restaurant. It’s this show, more than any other, that reaffirms my hope in love. It’s a show that accounts for people’s real lived experiences; old widowers looking for love again after 20 years, people being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, and people trying, as impossible as it feels sometimes, to understand one another. For a particularly heart-warming moment, check out this excerpt from the first episode of the seventh series, about an Irish mental health nurse who was left with Tourette’s after a traumatic break up, and how he can make his six-foot-four male model date laugh and open up about his own mental struggles:
Despite the competition, Sexy Beasts isn’t necessarily a write off, and there are lessons it can teach us all. Axing a potential love interest because they’re arrogant or they interrupt you are really good calls, but they’re tricky to make when you’re dazzled by a beautiful pair of eyes. The show isn’t a solution to the superficiality of dating–far too much of the emphasis is put on the grand reveal of what each contestant looks like; but it’s something fun to watch while we all try to grow up and realise it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Maybe we’d suffer a lot less heartbreak if we showed up to our next date dressed as beavers.
Sexy Beasts is on Netflix now.
Words by Eli Dolliver
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