And now the trend has metastasized into supposedly more respectable network TV, thanks to the success of Fox's Temptation Island and ABC's one-man-and-a-harem hit The Bachelor. In the innocent days of 2000, NBC decided the dating show Chains of Love was too declasse for a major network. Now it's airing Meet My Folks, a reality rip-off of the movie Meet the Parents in which Mom and Dad grill their children's suitors using a lie detector and the suitors quiz Mom and Dad about their sex lives. "We just want people to have a good time and develop some insights into the parent-child relationship," says Jeff Gaspin, the executive in charge of NBC reality programming. On ABC's upcoming The Dating Experiment, a couple undertakes challenges spend a night together on Alcatraz, follow a 412-mile-long string designed to bring the two closer. Next season on NBC's Love Shack deep breath a man and a woman move into a house together, meet two dates each and kick one of their dates out; then another two singles move in and likewise choose from two dates, until, after six episodes, the audience votes to award one couple the house. "Memento" wasn't this complicated.
So is America going to hell in a hot tub? No, but at the very least, in today's voyeuristic shows, love is a battlefield. Unlike, say, The Dating Game of the '60s, they're less about love connection than love disconnection. More dates go hilariously badly than well the woman on Blind Date, for instance, who belched her way through roller-skating and drinks with a straitlaced doctor. And if the participants don't humiliate themselves sufficiently, the shows finish the job, with snide commentary from the hosts and Pop-Up Video-style graphics (a lunkish guy at a gym gets labeled a "210-lb. dumbbell").
"The shows represent the transformation of dating into sport," says Aisha Tyler, host of The 5th Wheel. On EX-treme Dating, two ex-lovers of one dater spy on the rendezvous and comment to their ex's date through an earpiece, like evil Cyranos; if they "win" sabotage the date they get a prize. (So far, they usually do.) On Rendez-View, a panel of "relationship experts" offers play-by-play, SportsCenter style.
Dating shows tend to divide into two categories: the raunchier blind-date shows, generally on cable or in syndication, and the more mainstream "relationship" shows, generally on big networks, which combine a frisson of edginess with premises rooted in old-fashioned gender roles. On The Bachelor, one man chooses from a buffet of ladies with ring envy. Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? ditto. Meet My Folks re-creates a paternalistic scenario that went out with the Hula Hoop, if not the moat: three young men ask the parents', especially Dad's, permission to court their daughter. Yes, Meet My Folks plans to air some episodes with eligible sons instead of daughters, and on next January's The Bachelorette, a young woman will propose to 1 of 25 prospective beaus. (The lucky lady is Trista Rehn, 29, the former Miami Heat dancer who finished second on The Bachelor or won, depending on how you define success.) But is it a coincidence that these shows started off with women as their objects? Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss doesn't think sexual double standards will hurt Bachelorette "It's 2002. A woman can do anything a man can do, and on TV too" but he says it would have been harder to cast men for the show if they hadn't already seen the comely Rehn: "She's a known quantity. For men, the prospect of marriage itself isn't necessarily going to get them lined up to apply."
That's not to say the syndicated and cable shows are that much more liberated. But they're more libertine. They're unapologetically about the meat market none of them have "Love" or "Marry" in their title and they don't root themselves in cockamamie romantic truisms. For young viewers who spent their entire lives in the aids era, they're a safe fantasy of commitment-free dating, all about getting lucky, drunk and stupid with little at stake. (Which makes the herpes-medicine ads during the shows that much more unintentionally poignant.) Couples hook up mostly, it seems, as a performance for the audience trash-talk each other and move on. "I don't understand some of the women," says Barberie. "There was one who got in a hot tub with this guy big fake boobs, takes her top off, has him feel her boobs. Then they interview her afterward and ask if she'd go out with him again? 'Oh, absolutely not!'"
So why do the participants sign up? Mainly to find true love in a cold world.
Yeah, we couldn't keep a straight face for that either. "It was pretty much for the free stuff," says Justin Allen about his first dating-show stint. "I got three days in California, all expenses paid and $500." Other shows pay as little as $100 for a day's "work." But they offer a hit of today's drug of choice, exposure. "We try to weed out the wannabe actors and actresses," says David Garfinkle, co-creator of Blind Date, Rendez-View and The 5th Wheel. "No one has ever come on our show and become famous."
Someone must have forgot to tell Blind Date alum Jerri Manthey, who became the she-villain of Survivor 2. Or Allen, an aspiring actor who's been on Elimidate, Change of Heart, A Dating Story and "a dating-auction show that never aired called The Gamut." Kelly Ryan, a waitress in Studio City, Calif., parlayed a Blind Date appearance into stints on dating-game shows SexWars (she won $4,000) and Friends or Lovers. Ryan played the wild girl on her date, coaxing her beau into a hot-tub dip (surprise!) and a shower. The budding nightclub singer said her bikinied escapades helped increase her, er, visibility. "So many customers would tell me they saw me," she says. "They've played my segment close to 80 times."
Are the contestants cynical? As dating teaches us, it's a fine line between cynicism and experience. Are the shows contrived? Undoubtedly. But that's what dates are: arbitrary tasks (order and eat a meal, watch and comment on a movie) that give you an excuse to talk to an attractive stranger. And to young people who patronize Internet personals and "speed-dating" matchmaker services, getting hooked up by a casting director is not even the most bizarre option out there. "Where else can you find 25 guys who have had background and medical checks?" asks Bachelorette's Rehn. Today's dating shows may make love and romance look phony at best, vicious at worst. But isn't that a kind of comfort? After all, if you're on the couch watching somebody go on a date, there's one near certain explanation for it. You're not on one yourself.