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Netflix’s Perfect Match is a panopticon of sex and humiliation

Ceaseless watcher, gaze upon this wretched thing.

A woman with her mouth open in surprise, sitting beside a smiling man.
Francesca, left, is the star of Perfect Match. Here, it seems that a twist on Perfect Match has surprised her!
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.

Humiliation has always been at least a small part of reality television dating shows. Whether it’s the tear-stained rejection confessional on The Bachelor, Love Island’s public vote selecting the couple Britain likes the least, or Millionaire Matchmaker’s Patti Stanger berating a sugar baby into submission, the gist is always the same: The risk of on-camera embarrassment is worth the one-of-a-kind love one may find on these shows (or at least the love of being on camera).

In the last two weeks, I’ve discovered a sinister show in which utter human debasement is the sole point. This sadomasochistic program not only fools the contestants it treats like lowly worms into believing that flawless compatibility with another human exists and can be quantified, but makes those sick little piggies grovel every night for the chance to stay on for more humiliation.

Welcome to Netflix’s Perfect Match.

To be fair, I should have seen this coming: This is Netflix. The streaming platform gave us Love Is Blind, a series where people who have never seen each other and only spoken through an adjoining wall fall in love and get married within a couple of months. Its premise is allegedly about finding true love and how looks don’t matter, but over the course of its three seasons, it has maniacally warped into something close to the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The streamer is also home to Too Hot to Handle, a show that tricks extremely attractive, extremely horny people into believing they’re on a regular reality dating show. What these possible sex addicts are really in for is a show where they can win a cash prize if they can last the entire show without boning anyone on the show. If they do have sex, the cash prize is reduced little by little based on the audacity of the sexual act. Impurity will cost you!

Contestants from both those shows and other Netflix offerings like The Circle (a deeply obnoxious competitive reality series about social media where people yell commands at a screen), The Circle: France (I’m assuming it is also deeply obnoxious, but includes French people), The Mole, Selling Tampa, and Sexy Beasts all appear on Perfect Match, which is somehow crueler than any Netflix show that isn’t Squid Game. The series appears to be Netflix’s foray into ABC’s vaunted Bachelor-Bachelorette universe where contestants from both those shows participate in the extracurricular spinoff Bachelor in Paradise.

On Perfect Match, Netflix has assembled a rotating roster — five men and five women — of its reality television personalities and plunged them into what appears to be a gorgeous Airbnb in Panama.

Two women in cocktail dresses sitting talking on a sofa.
Kariselle, left, has a name that didn’t click for me until one of her castmates said it out loud.

Those who watch multiple Netflix shows will be rewarded by knowing the deep lore of these cast members and their personalities — like a woman named “Kariselle” from Sexy Beasts, whose carnival ride of a name didn’t unlock for me until it was said out loud.

There’s also Shayne, an alum of Love is Blind who may or may not have been emotionally abusive to the woman he was supposed to marry on the show. Shayne is unnerving because you cannot tell when this toothy man is joking, especially when he threatens a fellow contestant by saying he will run that guy’s dreams into the ground. I hope that is a joke.

My personal favorite is Francesca, a Too Hot to Handle alum who treats the game like Survivor and has had the kind of plastic surgery that makes it look like her mother was a Kardashian and her father was an Instagram filter.

Shayne, Kariselle, Francesca, and the other men and women pair off as heterosexual couples based on how attracted they are to each other. Then the next day, they take part in some kind of competition (these convoluted contests vary from physical challenges to kissing to quizzes and everything in between) where the winning couple gets to bring in two men or two women to the house. That decision deliberately creates an imbalance where there are either five men and seven women or vice versa. Whichever gender has the smaller number gets to choose their partner for the night, which almost always results in two contestants being left out in the cold (although later in the season, a same-sex couple materializes).

When I say cold, I mean it literally and figuratively. It appears to be cold at night in Panama, and these pairing ceremonies take place outdoors. Women on the show rarely wear pants. Men on the show rarely wear shirts. None of these Netflix stars brought warm knitwear to Central America.

The “pairing” ceremony takes place over drinks and the course of the night, throughout the various outdoor areas of the palatial Airbnb. To match with someone and thus stay on the show, one has to be invited to a room by a person whose gender is doing the choosing that night (e.g. girls pick guys when there are fewer girls). The innuendo is, of course, sexual as each couple will be sharing not just a room but a bed.

As couples pair off, they leave the remaining, unchosen people downstairs. At the end of the night, the two people not invited to bedrooms must leave together, like the lingering guests at a party when the host has gone to bed. They exit through the front door, while everyone else has put up “do not disturb” on their bedroom doors.

In the short term, winners get to stay another day and cozy up to their match, but it’s unclear what anyone wins at the end of the competition other than being deemed compatible. Host Nick Lachey says they’ll be deemed a “perfect match” but does not specify if there’s money or some kind of vacation as a reward.

Uncertainty is part of Netflix reality television charm. Since many of the streaming platform’s shows are the first of their kind, the contestants tend to fill in how the game is played, the way that, in the first season of The Circle, the players decided it was about teamwork. (Spoiler: It wasn’t, but it worked.) Perfect Match is filled with Netflix vets, and the contestants have determined among themselves that someone “here for the right reasons” should win. That said, the “right reasons” seems to be more or less arbitrary and largely dependent on if Francesca and her friends like someone.

A woman hanging a “do not disturb” sign outside her room.
The Bachelor has roses. Perfect Match has “do not disturb” signs.

While no one outright says it, the looming humiliation of having to leave the house with your fellow loser at the end of a drunken night has to be a motivating factor for staying on the show. The circumstances were created to trigger and maximize desperation. Existing couples reassure each other that they really like each other, not just because one person in the relationship held the power the previous night. Someone in a pairing who doesn’t necessarily like their partner might put on a charm offensive not because of genuine interest but because they know one else will invite them to a room. The two newbies who get picked to enter the villa have to work speedily to convince anyone to let them stay. After all, they did not fly all that way to Panama to get barely any screen time on a Netflix show.

During one brutal pairing-off ceremony, Dom, Francesca’s longstanding match, watches as Francesca cozies up to a new man. He cries to the camera lamenting the connection they or he had. He weeps because she’s chosen another muscled himbo, one who she says is more appetizing to her sexually than the man crying is. The whimpering man at one point tells the cameraman that he told Francesca he loves her. This man has felt a full lifetime of emotion for Francesca, it seems, in just 72 or so hours.

The next morning, Francesca and her new match talk about how they don’t have foot fetishes but they like feet.

Then the Hunger Games-like cycle repeats itself as two more people enter the house, the power shifts, from women to men, and two more people leave alone together. And on and on.

Despite extensive Googling, the show has an opacity that I cannot penetrate: It’s still unclear what the winning couple actually gets. What’s in store for them? Cash? Another trip to a sandy beach? His and hers matching sets? It doesn’t matter. The humiliation is the point.

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