Netflix’s dating show Love Is Blind appears at first to raise the question: “Is love blind?” It is right there in the show’s title. It is apparent in the construct of sending participants on dates in neighboring “pods” which allow them to interact only by voice. It is explicitly and repeatedly underscored by the show’s married celebrity hosts, Nick and Vanessa Lachey. “We all have to remember this central question: Is love truly blind?” asks Vanessa in the first episode. While this is a compelling experimental frame, the blindness of love is by no honest measure the question asked or answered by the show, regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s finale. Nor is the superficiality of romance relevant to Love Is Blind’s immense, binge-able appeal.
More than anything, Love Is Blind is about the imaginative, projective powers of love. It’s a testimony to being able to see what you want when there isn’t much else to see. It reveals how remarkably easy it is, given the right circumstances, to dream oneself into forever. Again and again in its opening episodes, Love Is Blind shows us a person in a room by themselves falling in love—and the real question is: with what or whom, exactly?
Of course, the solitary setup is supposed to allow participants to fall in love with the essential core of another human being. But over the course of a few days and mere hours spent together, viewers see people in this reality-TV pressure cooker swoon at humdrum intimacies. In the real world, winning traits are often wishfully imagined within attractive packages. In the pods, basic compatibilities and charm expand into the stratosphere of “soulmate.” It’s like watching disbelievingly as someone goes googly-eyed for a robot programmed to perform a personality based off the outline of a dating profile. Oh my goodness, you’re a Christian from Chicago who likes sports? Where have you been all my life?!?!
The superficial element of physical appearance is taken away, but so are grounding factors like body language, eye contact, and facial expressions. The distractions of the outside world are gone, but so are the illuminating (and sometimes discouraging) experiences of seeing someone interact with the larger, unpredictable world. In the pods, people trade fast affections born of their isolated (and, perhaps, mildly traumatic) contexts, shedding tears without being seen, which might reveal certain emotional truths but isn’t reflective of their communication style or emotional accessibility outside of that safe cocoon of self. The setup, though vaguely dystopian, is stocked with comforts: a highly lounge-able couch, fuzzy throw pillows, nearby booze cart with mini bottles of liquor. There is nary a breeze to blow a piece of one’s hair out of place.
Absent outside distractions and inconveniences, or a fuller picture of their potential partners, participants are simply left with their desire to fall in love and scraps of information from which to make that happen. They are given a blank canvas and asked to choose between painting materials. This setup so efficiently generated love matches that producers were reportedly wholly unprepared; they expected to get one or two proposals out of 30 participants and instead got eight (only six of which aired). In some cases—Spoilers ahead—the most difficult decision was not whether to propose but to whom: Barnett, who is portrayed as the playboy of the bunch, indicated that he could theoretically see himself proposing to Jessica, then proposed to Amber shortly thereafter.
Reality TV shows have trafficked in this fast-intimacy scheme for a long while: The Bachelor franchise sees a man or woman gradually eliminate potential partners from a cast of 30 and, typically, get engaged after two months of dating. Love Is Blind condenses the number of competitors (each contestant begins with 15 dates and within a matter of days narrows down to eight and then two) and, most dramatically, the timeline: Lauren and Cameron got engaged after just five days and no couple stayed in the pod longer than 10 days. Just 38 days elapse from the first meeting to the wedding day. It’s your average dating show on hyper-speed, much in the style of Married at First Sight, in which people agree to marry total strangers in pairings arranged by supposed relationship experts. Only, in Love Is Blind, the fast-tracked pairings are facilitated by the participants themselves and their own romantic illusions.
As we watch this experiment unfold, viewers get to omnisciently peer down into the pods, understanding that this is an experiment, that these folks are acting crazy, that they are falling in love with a mere idea of a person. But what makes it highly watchable isn’t the off-the-wall-ness so much as its everyday relatability. Who has not fallen a little bit in love with the broad strokes of a dating profile? Who has not polished a dull partnership to high sheen through sheer force of imagination? Love Is Blind takes the cultural marching orders to find The One within, say, a two-decade timespan and consolidates it into the space of 10 days. It’s all the delusion and rationalization of love in the real world, just made for TV.
The second half of the series is, ostensibly, the experiment’s proving time. The couples have already fallen in love, so will they stay in love even after they see each other? But as the couples meet, go on vacation, and ultimately move in together, there is little to confront in terms of the truth of a partner’s appearance, as everyone on the show is conventionally attractive. Mostly, the confrontation is with their partner’s full humanity.
Sure, there are participants who end up with someone who is not quite their physical “type” (namely Jessica and Kelly) and the show obligatorily explores these feelings in keeping with its supposed frame, but there appear to be much larger issues at play (including, but not limited to, outside connections, alcohol consumption, complicated sexual backstories, and that mysterious quality of chemistry). The most conspicuous problem is that the show has engineered for unusual degrees of mutual romantic ideation before these people get to experience each other as flesh and blood, as opposed to disembodied voices. A participant’s physical appearance is just one small, relatively unremarkable piece of this collision of fantasy and reality.
Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s finale (the previews for which show a woman in a wedding dress running away while yelling, “I cannot do this”), we’ve already seen how things played out between Diamond and Carlton, who waited to tell her about his history of dating men until after their engagement. In the pods, through tears of relief, he imagined out loud that she was a woman who would accept him for who he is: “It just became evident, day by day, that there was no fears, just feeling like I could be myself with you and no matter what I’d tell you, you’d accept me and not leave me, because I feel I’ve been left many times.” She, on the other hand, saw a person who had already told her his full and complete truth. Outside of the pods, those mismatched expectations collided heartbreakingly.
Then there’s Damian and Giannina, who find each other attractive in person but discover sexual incompatibilities, as well as a tendency toward explosive, destructive arguments unlike anything they experienced together in the pods. Jessica and Mark struggle to connect outside of the safety of the pods, going so far as to mimic the pod environment on a date night by sharing a romantic dinner while talking with each other through a wall in their apartment. The connection that was engendered by separation wasn’t one between their true selves, but rather the people they were able to be, and see, in isolation.
It’s clear that Love Is Blind fancies itself as making a statement about love and superficiality, not just through its insistence on the blindness of love frame, but also frequent mentions of social media. As Vanessa Lachey explains in the premiere episode, “We live in such a disconnected and distracted world, your value is often judged solely by the photo on your dating app.” It is repeatedly underscored that participants are cut off from their devices while in the pod and reintroduced to their distracting smartphones once they’re cohabitating on the outside. Regaining access to Instagram is narratively engineered as a parallel to the revelation of their partner’s physical appearance.
The producers seem to be screaming at us: CAN LOVE WITHSTAND THE SUPERFICIAL REALITIES OF OUR WORLD? Of course, it’s ironic to be urged to such considerations by a reality TV show that has placed conventionally attractive humans in ethically questionable environments designed to elicit maximum dramatic effect. More to the point, the show’s vision of love exhibits its own superficiality, just in a different direction: one-dimensional intimacies and co-conspired romantic fantasies. The only lesson to be drawn here is that love is mutable, contextual, and delusional.
Sometimes it works out anyway.