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Love Is Blind, Netflix’s dystopian romance contest, explained

The gaudy, toxic appeal of Netflix’s Love Is Blind.

Love Is Blind on Netflix.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In an act of dark magic, the streaming giant Netflix has merged the erotic unpredictability of shotgun weddings with the impending doom of a dystopian fantasy into a 10-episode television event.

It’s called Love Is Blind.

The premise is similar to that of most dating shows: Pleasant-looking individuals from all walks of life are given less than 40 days to marry each other and find love in a hopeless place — a reality show that will document every single moment, in the hopes of serving up the most delicious and spicy morsels for the audience. But what sets Love Is Blind apart from its kin, like the Bachelor franchise, is that these contestants don’t know what their matches look like before they get engaged.

Though we don’t have Netflix’s official viewership numbers, the show has been building momentum. It’s part of Netflix’s newly minted top 10 list, a little sticker feature on the platform that indicates the 10 most popular series and movies. Also, according to Netflix, it is the most viewed program — show or series — in the United States right now. Love Is Blind’s contestants and their triumphs and follies have become part of a national conversation.

Here’s a brief guide to everything you need to know about what makes this hit show so engrossing.

1) What is Love Is Blind?

Cameron from Love Is Blind.

“Love is blind” is an idiom that’s turned into a television show. The phrase is believed to have first been found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the Merchant’s Tale, which preaches a cynical view of marriage about a blind man who magically gains sight at the very moment he’s being cuckolded. That phrasing also appears in a couple of Shakespeare’s works, including The Merchant of Venice:

But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies
that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy

Both Shakespeare’s and Chaucer’s characters are saying that when you’re in love, you overlook the faults of whoever you’re in love with and your own foolish behavior in loving said person.

Netflix took the idiom and applied it very literally to this dating show, which premiered on February 13. The conceit isn’t necessarily about overlooking one’s flaws or behavior, as Chaucer and Shakespeare intended with the phrase. Instead, the main question of the series is whether people can fall in love with one another, “sight unseen.”

If they do, they must propose to one another — again, before having ever seen each other — and then actually meet in person. From there, the newly engaged couple must get to know each other face to face, and marry each other in 38 days. If they remain in love, then Netflix’s hypothesis will be proved: Love can bloom on a pure emotional connection alone.

The 30 contestants — 15 men and 15 women — are looking for heterosexual relationships. (There is one contestant who comes out as having had relationships with both men and women, but he is on the show to find a female partner. His sexuality becomes a major point of contention in this heteronormative show, however.)

After the contests are divided by gender, and introduced to languid co-hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey, they enter what are called “pods” — little living rooms divided by a blue-lit wall, where they can hear the person on the other side but cannot see them.

The pods in Love Is Blind.

When the couples get engaged and finally get to take a look at whom they’ve committed to, the show sends them on a post-betrothal trip to Mexico. That’s where they get a little one-on-one time, until all of the contestants congregate and get to meet each other as one big group.

From there, the couples move in with one another before their wedding. They go through a truncated, even mutated version of engagement traditions, like awkwardly introducing their parents to their reality television show fiancé. They also go wedding dress shopping and have bachelor and bachelorette parties with their fellow guinea pigs.

2) What’s the appeal of Love Is Blind?

What drives the “experiment” of Love Is Blind is the belief that dating apps and social media have made everyone superficial, obsessed with the physical characteristics of a person rather than their emotional selves. By creating an atmosphere in which people are only able to become attracted to each other through conversations and then propelling couples into a hyperdrive timeline of a marriage in 38 days, the show wants to see if love is more than physical attraction.

Dating and finding true love on a television show is a classic concept. The Dating Game premiered in 1965 as one of the first shows of this TV genre, and featured someone looking for love talking to suitors behind a wall. While Love Is Blind borrows those elements, it’s also seemingly going after the same audience that’s devoted to The Bachelor, Married at First Sight, or older shows like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, shows whose appeal is less earnest in its efforts to forge love connections.

The viewers of Love Is Blind aren’t really invested in these people finding love and getting married, so much as they are in the presentation. Netflix found people willing to partake in this absurd exercise, and those people let the entire thing be filmed for public consumption. It’s voyeurism at its finest.

“There’s an amazing tonal volatility to Love Is Blind,” Troy Patterson wrote in the New Yorker in faint praise of the series. “Slabs of crass exploitation abut moments of deep sentiment. There are touching scenes of human vulnerability and harrowing sequences of people lying to themselves at length. Vast idiocies of human behavior provoke moments of thoughtful reflection.”

Love Is Blind’s volatility drives the show into schadenfreude. When these conventionally attractive, normal-seeming people turn into human disasters, we can’t help but feel better about ourselves and our love lives. It’s affirming that even if we one day get played as badly as these contestants or become a doormat on internationally available TV, we’ll never be asked to propose to someone we’ve never met before and marry them in four weeks. It’s devastatingly beautiful and irresistibly entertaining to see this warped version of real life play out on television:

3) Is there anyone on the show worth rooting for?

Love Is Blind’s Jessica loves wine and Chicago.

The show begins with a lot of contestants, but it very quickly focuses on a core group of five couples: the lovable Lauren and Cameron; chaos agents Giannina and Damian; buyers’ remorse-havers Kelly and Kenny; alleged adults Barnett and Amber; and emotional scammer Jessica with her sad-sack fiancé Mark.

Love Is Blind leans heavily into these tropes. The show is in love with the fairy-tale earnestness of Cameron and Lauren, whose instant connection seems designed to melt the coldest and most cynical of hearts. There are also plenty of horny fights between Giannina and Damian that sort of make you believe this entire thing will work out, just because it sure seems like both need disruption and mayhem in their lives.

These couples are ultimately worth rooting for, even if just because it’s fun to watch them. But the most compelling character of the show is Jessica, a 34-year-old blonde who works vaguely in “tech” and who lets her dog drink wine. More importantly, Jessica is also Love Is Blind’s required dating game villain.

“In her last relationship, the connection was made through social media and was based solely off of physical attraction,” Jessica’s official Love Is Blind bio reads. “This led to a much delayed realization that there was little compatibility and potential for a long-term relationship. Jessica has learned that many of her previous relationships similarly progressed and ended and she figures this experiment may short-circuit that challenge.”

In the pods, when they couldn’t see each other, Jessica clicked with 24-year-old Mark over their love of Chicago sports teams and Christianity. Throwing a wrench into that romance, though, is semi-retired frat bro Barnett.

The show’s earliest juicy drama comes from when Barnett, in a roundabout way, tells Jessica that he’d propose to her only under a specific circumstance: If there was no other woman on the show he was interested in.

Misinterpreting this as a declaration of true love, Jessica dumps Mark, despite their commonalities, because she is very into Barnett’s voice and personality, and because she thinks he’s in love with her. She later asks him about what she thought was his proposal, only to have Barnett clarify that he’s not ready to propose to her because, as he said, there are still other women on the show.

Jessica sees this as the ultimate betrayal, and backs into an engagement with Mark.

This would be enough drama and a satisfying character arc for your above-average reality television show contestant. But there’s much more to the story of Jessica.

Throughout the engagement/move-in/marriage process, Jessica still has her eye on Barnett, now that she can actually look at him.

The men pick out wedding suits on Love Is Blind.

While her fiancé Mark is dreaming about spending the rest of his life with her, Jessica does things like pull Barnett aside for heart-to-hearts, talk about her “connection” with him in confessionals, and gush about him to everyone — including his show fiancée, Amber. Yet Jessica maintains that she has no feelings for Barnett and is flabbergasted when her show fiancé, Amber, and Barnett himself point out all the behavior that led them to this conclusion.

And in a defining moment, one of her fellow castmates even dubs her “Messica” during their joint bachelorette party.

Jessica’s unhinged spiral into Messica is the beating heart of the show, a perfect crystallization of its hilarious, delectable sloppiness. While I’m interested in seeing whether the rest of the couples live happily ever after, I’m more excited about Jessica arriving at the altar and the maelstrom of disorder that is bound to follow.

4) Who is paying for all these rings and wedding dresses?

In the first couple of episodes, contestants begin proposing to each other with seemingly manifested engagement rings. This gave way to several questions: Who picked out these rings? Did the women all get sized before getting on the show? What happens if she doesn’t like the engagement ring? Can it be exchanged?

But biggest of all: Who is paying for all these things?

It would seem that Netflix is funding the entire operation — paying for not only the engagement rings but also the apartments these couples move into, the wedding dresses and suits they’ll wear on the day, and the venues.

But that might not be the case.

In episode eight, Amber, who’s described as an “ex-tank mechanic,” talks about how her wedding dress’s alterations would put her in a financial hole; she’s unemployed and strapped for cash. Her remarks seem to indicate that the contestants are paying for some portion of the bill.

Vox has sent an inquiry to Netflix, and will update when we hear word.

5) How long have the couples been together?

Cameron, an angel, proposes to Lauren, also an angel, on Love Is Blind.

Because most reality television shows aren’t aired live (with some exceptions like CBS’s Big Brother) there’s usually a delay between the end of taping and when it airs. To get around this, some shows like Survivor have live finales, while others have their contestants sign strict nondisclosure agreements until the finale airs, so as not to spoil the show; some may have a combination of both.

What separates Love Is Blind from other reality shows and aligns it with its Bachelor brethren is that “winning” the show just means that you’re ... married or in a relationship to someone you’ve just met. There’s no money involved, no big vacations; Love Is Blind just awards couples with the opportunity to continue being a couple.

At the end of filming, the contestants either got married or didn’t. Ergo, the couples are either together or have split and have had to keep the results secret. And since we live in an age of social media, the contestants have had to make sure there aren’t any big clues (e.g., posting a story with their new husband or wife, or one about themselves being single or dating someone new) to maintain the mystery of the show. That hasn’t stopped some viewers from trying to get answers themselves, sleuthing platforms like Instagram and Venmo for clues.

Refinery29 figured out that the show stopped filming in November 2018, based on information in an interview with a cast member and some savvy arithmetic. That means the contestants have been together or broken up for nearly a year and a half before the show started airing. In comparison, this year’s season of The Bachelor was in production around October 2019 and premiered at the beginning of January.

6) How did the show become so popular?

There are a couple of other factors that turned Love Is Blind into a hit: It premiered on February 13, 2020, giving its audience a show about romance right before Valentine’s Day. But more interestingly is that Netflix staggered its release.

Unlike other Netflix shows, which come out with a full season at a time, Love Is Blind has “aired” in small bunches of episodes over the past three weeks. It’s akin to how Netflix released its other recent hit reality television show The Circle. This week marks the last batch of episodes and the season finale.

Staggering episodes pumps up the conversation around the show, because it keeps viewers all on the same page. It makes watching the series more social (through viewers posting on Twitter or Instagram stories) since every current viewer is more or less watching the same show within the same couple of weeks, as opposed to, say, someone binging an entire show in one night and then waiting around for everyone else to finish it. It’s the same basic cable approach that keeps The Bachelor and other reality shows on traditional television in the cultural zeitgeist.

7) Is love actually blind?

According to a 2015 study by Rafael Wlodarski, an affiliate at the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group at Oxford, and Robin Dunbar, who heads the group, 91 participants “were better at interpreting the emotional states of others after a love prime than after a neutral prime.” Love, it seems, can make people better at being emotionally intelligent.

But the researchers also noted that past studies have found that Chaucer and Shakespeare may have been onto something else there. Love can make us more emotionally intelligent, but less intelligent in other ways. Wlodarski and Dunbar wrote in their abstract:

On the other hand, recent functional MRI (fMRI) research on individuals who are in love suggests that several brain regions associated with mentalizing may be “deactivated” during the presentation of a love prime, potentially affecting mentalizing cognitions and behaviors.

Netflix isn’t particularly concerned with that interpretation, it seems.

Love Is Blind isn’t about whether love blinds us to our immature behavior, but rather, if love is strong enough to withstand the ridiculousness of a 38-day engagement along with physical chemistry, age gaps, and friends’ and families’ judgment. Whether or not love is strong enough to conquer any of these factors, Netflix knows you’ll be tuning in.

Love Is Blind’s 10-episode season is now streaming in full on Netflix.

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