Shanley is crying. We hear her before we see her. Her voice, which rings out over a scenic shot of a beautiful beach at night, is wavering. "I don't trust anybody in this house," she exclaims.
We finally see her. She is standing in front of a group of her peers, brown hair pulled back in a messy low ponytail, her face puffy and red, probably from some combination of emotion, exhaustion, alcohol, and sun exposure. She continues: "You're selfish, you wanna win the money. I get it! I wanna win the money too. But I can't. There's another person I care about, whether you're my perfect match or not." The group stares back at her silently. "You guys are fucking assholes."
As a title card reveals, it is day 26 of shooting, and things are tense.
Thus begins Season 1 of MTV's dating game show Are You the One?. The year was 2014, and America had no idea what had hit it. From the beginning, Are You the One? was unique, an insane combination of competition reality show like Road Rules, and house dating show like Big Brother, featuring a cast of diverse young people who somehow seemed to get through the experience without having their humanity entirely sucked out of them. As former host Ryan Devlin first said all those years ago, "Welcome to the most ambitious matchmaking experiment ever attempted. You're here because you all have one thing in common—you suck at relationships."
Like a dating app, Are You the One? purports to make finding the one simpler: the show’s creators have already chosen your perfect match for you, as determined by some inscrutable calculus involving high-level matchmakers, numerous interviews, conversations with family and friends, an IQ test, and a meeting with a therapist. You just have to find out who that person is, as do a couple dozen other people who are in the same boat with you.
But as Shanley’s story suggests, getting there is anything but easy. With its depiction of nubile hot bodies navigating the thrilling highs and crushing lows of falling for the one you want instead of the one you need, AYTO isn’t just the wildest dating show currently airing on U.S. television, one with the strange particularity of applying actual game theory to something as intangible and mysterious as romantic chemistry; it also, somehow, feels like the perfect encapsulation of how young people date today.
Before we do anything, we must begin by explaining the oh-so-confusing premise of Are You the One?. A group of 20 or 22 (or, for this season, 16) men and women are matched into pairs. They enter a mansion in Hawaii or New Orleans or the Caribbean with one goal: to figure out, individually and as a group, who their Perfect Match is. If the group is successful, they all find love and get a monetary reward: a collective split of $1 million (or $40-50,000 a person, before taxes).
Most episodes end with a matchup ceremony—there are 10 spread out over roughly six weeks of filming—where each person picks who they think their Perfect Match is, and the number of couples that are correctly matched is revealed through massive beams of light shined into the sky. But the majority of each episode is focused on the lead-up to that moment, when the cast drinks, parties, hangs around the house, and takes advantage of opportunities to figure out their ideal mate. One way to do so is by flirting, going out on dates, making out and, um, much more. But there's the math side too. Once an episode, the group can elect to send a pair to the Truth Booth, a room equipped with lasers and a TV screen that will reveal whether or not the couple in question is indeed a Perfect Match. If they're right, the couple leaves the house to stay in the Honeymoon Suite for the duration of filming, returning only for matchup ceremonies; their absence means that the other contestants can cross a name off their list of potential partners.
The main house is as tricked out as any you've seen on The Real World, notably featuring one big room where everyone sleeps on mattresses shoved together (though there's also a room people can go to uh, get to know each other better, called the Boom Boom Room).
The premise is "super ambitious," Executive Producer Jeff Spangler admits during a June phone call from his office in Los Angeles. Spangler is the co-president of Lighthearted Productions, the production company behind Extreme Makeover and Dating Naked; he says that he, his partner Rob LaPlante, and Lighthearted's late founder Howard Schultz came up with the idea for AYTO roughly seven years ago, envisioning it as “a dating experiment with a bit of a game twist.”
"It was really born out of a singular question, which was—and we use it to this day when talking about the show—if your perfect person was standing right in front of you, would you even know it?"
THE DATING GAME
"No matter how extreme the gimmick, the Bachelor franchise has spawned the only modern-day dating shows with any serious longevity," reporter Amy Kaufman wrote in her 2018 book, Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America's Guilty Pleasure. Given the franchise's total of five shows and cumulative 49 seasons since it launched in 2002, that's certainly accurate, and it's made it difficult for any show that's come since to really break through. Premiering in 2002 on a national network gave The Bachelor the widespread market it needed to become the water cooler show it is now, one of the few that shaped reality television history and still continues to. And yet, a significant part of the conversation surrounding The Bachelor has always been about what it's not doing: namely, how it’s based on an archaic conceit of how relationships look and function in modern times. The show focuses on mostly white, classically attractive twentysomethings whose apparent sole desire is to heterosexually marry after mere weeks of barely discussing life's most fraught topics, such as politics (sometimes interesting) or sex (usually interesting)—easily the opposite of what dating looks like for younger generations on many fronts.
By contrast, AYTO's messiness and overt calculatedness when it comes to "picking the one" does the opposite—it makes the show seem less sincere in its intentions, hiding the fact that its cast members are actually trying to find someone the way one often does in life, which is to say, without a promise things will work out.
The second season of The Bachelor, featuring Aaron Buerge, boasted the show's highest ratings for one episode, a stunning 25.9 million; it gets more in the range of 6 to 10 now. By comparison, most episodes of Are You the One? bring in between 500,000 and 1 million viewers, though its biggest demo is consistently the much-coveted 18 to 34 year olds. In a crowded reality dating show landscape that includes Love Island (U.K. and soon to be U.S. editions), the return of Temptation Island, Naked and Afraid, Dating Naked, and numerous others now cancelled, Are You the One? simmers below the surface, born out of the experimental legacy of MTV's The Real World, Next or Room Raiders. But it has also become a feeder show in its own right—specifically for the one-season spin-off Are You the One: Second Chances, and Ex on the Beach.
Former Are You the One? showrunner Scott Jeffress, who spent years on The Bachelor and has also produced for the reboot of Temptation Island, told The New York Times last year that a lack of realism was one of the reasons he left The Bachelor; he wanted "to produce louder and more honest shows… On The Bachelor, we always had to cut to a closed door and assume that they’ve slept together or whatever you want to think they were doing. On Are You the One? there’s never closed doors. There’s the camera, the Boom Boom Room. I think that’s just more honest. Is it more shocking? Absolutely."
Are You the One? hasn't reinvented the reality TV wheel, but it has thoughtfully iterated on it; its creators say they purposefully made a show that had more self-awareness than what else was out there. "It's more real than most dating shows that I've ever been exposed to," said co-EP Malia Jade, who has spent her entire career primarily focused on reality dating shows, and has worked on AYTO since Season 1, save for a scheduling conflict last season. "Their only incentive is to find someone that they connect with and experience those feelings, and then hope that they get rewarded at the end with some money."
Spangler says the team iterated on the concept for some time. I ask whether he and the team were worried the cast would "solve" the problem and find their matches sooner than the allotted 10 episode series they were set for in Season 1; he says that that was very much on their mind, to the point that they'd even considered using the idea that the show could end in any episode as part of its marketing. "The idea that in Episode 1 they could just magically align themselves in the right order and the show would be over, as the Executive Producer—yeah, that was scary."
When Shanley McIntee got a call about appearing on a new MTV show, she had no idea what she was in for. "All I knew [was] that it was a dating show, and that it was going to be in Hawaii. We knew absolutely nothing," she recalls over the phone. She had previously applied to be on The Real World, and got far along in casting, but withdrew so she could finish school. Once out of college and feeling a bit directionless in life, she decided to take the plunge.
Season 1 of AYTO was heavily dominated by McIntee and fellow castmate Chris Tolleson's love for each other, despite the fact that they learned in Episode 1 that they were not a Perfect Match. This is one of the main tensions of the show: the cast members who are playing for money, versus the cast members who have fallen in love and will not! fall out of it for the sake of group. To get the money and find their perfect matches, however, all ultimately have to work together.
AYTO's creators argue that being stuck in a house with someone you've just met is actually a unique, helpful way to tackle your relationships issues. True or not, something preternatural happens when you're trapped with people who have all chosen to do the same, which mystifies even the show’s participants. "I think the people that create these shows are extremely smart, they know what they're doing, taking everything away from us and putting us in this—we were the guinea pigs," she says, echoing a common refrain from reality show contestants. "Everything they wanted to happen happened. And it wasn't because they were telling us what to do or who to be attracted to. It just happened."
That said, McIntee doesn't put much stock into the idea of the Perfect Match as it appears on the show. "Adam [Kuhn] and I are, like, literally—I would never, ever, ever want to be with him in real life. Or even on the show." Still, she says she knew Kuhn was her match "after three or four days," and says as much during her season. "It was specifically off of very surface level things,” she says, observing that Kuhn was "literally the male version" of her at that time. "At this point in my life, I'm a partier, I'm promiscuous, I do whatever the fuck I want, I'm loud, I'm obnoxious. I was like, ‘You're literally me. You're my match.’" Though she says she realized pretty quickly that Tolleson wasn’t the one for her after they left the house, they seemed to have more of a connection: “I know that we were talking about tattoos and stupid shit like that, but there was a lot more involved; we had a lot more in common.”
McIntee voiced a popular sentiment that the matchmaking is probably a combination of casting for interesting people and actually trying to put people together who would be a good fit. But she cites fellow Season 1 contestants Ethan and Amber as an example of things working out. And indeed, Ethan Diamond and Amber Lee (now Lee Diamond) are the golden couple of Are You the One?, the only Perfect Match to "make it." They're now married and have two children, and though they have had regular-person jobs, they also make some of their living from sponsored content that focuses on their family life. "Ethan and Amber are proof that Are You the One? is real,” their castmate Ryan said during their televised "baby shower" Are You The One? Special Delivery. "It's not some fairytale story anymore; it's a happy ending."
Diamond described the process of going on AYTO as "almost like the real-life eHarmony or something," due to the extensive interviewing and psychological evaluations that prospective castmates have to go through when they audition to be on the show. But given all that, it's a more selective community than one you'd find on most dating sites; one could even go as far as to argue that, regardless of how young the cast is, it's almost strange only one Perfect Match has lasted.
AYTO has still, regardless of whether the Perfect Matches are actually deemed as such by their participants, resulted in plenty of inter or post-show couplings; non-Perfect Matches Gianna and Hayden from Season 3 even have a child, though they have since separated. A brief trip through the Instagram accounts of former castmates brings you to dozens who have or are currently dating one another; as of press time, Joe (Season 6) and Mikala (Season 4), Julia and Stephen (Season 4), Cam (Season 5) and Carolina (Season 4), Uche and Clinton (Season 6) are still making a go of it, having met either on their seasons or through the larger AYTO network that seems to flourish in group chats and various U.S. cities. Every reunion episode now includes reveals of new cast members added to the web of those who have hooked up with people from other seasons.
"In some ways it's kind of like going to summer camp or college for the first time,” notes 33-year-old Alexander Wang, a software engineer who runs the blog Are You the One? Math and made a consistent hobby out of breaking down the show. “You put a bunch of people in a place together and people make friends; some people couple up, the couples change over time, some people go off, they get married off of that. I like to think there are like mini versions of Are You the One? going on in every college dorm in the country, especially in those first few months as freshmen." Lee Diamond echoes that sentiment: "It's become just another network for us," she says. "Just another dating site!" her husband chimes in.
Like other shows before them, the cast members of AYTO have evolved over the years into their own little dating ecosystem, to the delight of the people who matched them, who don't seem too hung up on whether they were "supposed" to be together in the first place. It's a development that raises the question: Does it even matter if someone is deemed your perfect match?
CRACKING THE CODE
For years, people have tried to use math to make sense of the relationships and dynamics of The Bachelor, creating charts and graphs to parse what kind of contestant will make it far, win, or have a good chance of becoming the next season's lead. But on Are You the One?, the math part of a love equation isn't some post-season analysis; much like OkCupid's match percentage, it's baked into the premise. Many have argued that watching The Bachelor is like watching sports, and if that's your thing, you will love AYTO.
One example of this obsession is Wang's Are You the One? Math site, which he says gets a couple hundred thousand hits each season; additionally, about 2000 people log on live during each episode to read his weekly recaps breaking down each possible couple’s chance of being a match on the basis of mathematical probability alone. He and his computer program have accurately predicted the end of each season before it airs since the beginning.
For those who are not math-competent, Wang explains the seemingly complex probabilities of AYTO very simply, pointing out that it uses factorials, the kind you learned about in elementary school. "One way to think about it would be, if you stood all the women in line and you left them in the same place the whole time, how many different ways could you order the men against that line of women—so each man was facing a woman—in as many combinations." He has determined that contestants face wading through hundreds of thousands of possibilities before the final matchup, though things get much easier to figure out once couples are confirmed to be matches or not.
As you might expect, the cast members of AYTO are equally concerned about crunching the numbers; they are often chastised by the host for thinking too much about strategy and not following their hearts, while in the same breath told that they need to move on from partners they can't get out of their heads. But the way the show is edited, someone is almost always revealed to have been a statistics major in college and then saves the group from a big loss in the nick of time. In reality, cast members say they spend plenty of time trying to figure out their matches rationally, using cups, or lipsticks to perform the same probability calculations that Wang uses a computer to achieve (they lost access to pens and paper after the first season).
Every single season, save for Season 5, has figured out their matches, some more convincingly than others. In the finale of Season 3, the cast went from knowing one Perfect Match, and having a maximum of three beams all season, to miraculously getting all 10 couples right in the final episode. Conspiracy theories and gossip abound, among the audience and cast members, as to whether production is involved in manipulating the results of the show. The creators of AYTO, of course, deny they do any behind-the-scenes maneuvering. "If they win, great. If they lose, great," Spangler says. "To me, a failure would be a cast that doesn't buy in to the experience, that doesn't let the audience in to who they are, and takes us along on that journey. Knock on wood, that's never happened."
Unlike The Bachelor, which has spent years grappling with spoilers, Are You the One? has managed to keep its results on the down-low. On set, this means that only a certain group of people know who the Perfect Matches are. "Obviously myself and Rob know and our showrunner knows...and some executives over at MTV know, and our co-EPs know." Spangler explains.
But that's it; in an interview in the green room for MTV's rebooted TRL, Terrence J (the host of seasons five through eight) reveals, surprisingly, that he's purposefully out of the loop, as are the show's story producers, who deal directly with the cast for the 20-something hours a day they film (in an email, former host Ryan Devlin confirmed the same was true for him). "They slipped up last season and they told me some information, and I had to go out there, and it's the hardest thing," he says. "When I'm digging in on them at the end of a matchup ceremony, and I'm saying, 'What the hell were y'all thinking?,' if I know in the back of my mind that they're really close to getting it right, it's going to dictate how I communicate that information."
KEEPING IT FRESH
During its seven seasons on air, AYTO's producers have introduced various twists to the show's already detailed set-up. After Season 2, ostensibly because things were too easy, they created the concept of a "blackout," which means if the cast gets zero matches in a matchup ceremony, they lose money off their total possible compensation. This is ostensibly because a blackout can give the cast a lot of information: It tells them that every single pair they think is a match isn't, and cuts out a lot of options. The big twist of Season 8, which premiered Wednesday night, is that, even though there are fewer contestants, every single one of them is sexually fluid.
There have been several queer dating shows on U.S. television, including Bravo's 2003 show Boy Meets Boy, where the "twist" was that the lead suitor didn't know the men he was choosing from weren't all gay, MTV's A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila in 2007, which provoked criticism from seemingly everyone, or LOGO's Finding Prince Charming in 2016, which also fell flat. Dating shows often get flack for something they're doing wrong, but there's much more at stake when you're using the lives of marginalized communities as entertainment.
The network has had some recent successes however; the second season of Ex on the Beach featured several gay couples, and their drama was in no way differentiated from that of their straight counterparts. On AYTO, the decision to feature sexually fluid cast members was, from the perspective of Spangler, of a piece with changing attitudes towards sexuality and gender within the show’s millennial and Gen Z target demographic. "Over the last few years, in our casting process, especially with this age group, we'd constantly run into interesting characters that, as we were dissecting their dating lives, you know, they'd say, ‘When I date women, I'm really attracted to X. But when I date men, I really like Y.’ There was a clearly a bigger conversation going on in the dating community with super young people, and something that we couldn't ignore."
As if to cushion for possible blowback, they've brought an authority on screen this season: dating expert Dr. Frankie Bashan who focuses on lesbian and bisexual relationships. Bashan, who is referred to as Dr. Frankie, acts as a guide for the castmates, talking through their relationship issues with them on camera.
Over the phone, Bashan says she felt like the cast was surprisingly receptive to her feedback and that the producers handled the process with respect, from beginning to end: “They really wanted to give the queer perspective or queer experience, capturing sexual fluidity and the depth." Season 8 already looks to have a more serious energy than ones prior; even the trailer shows one cast member admitting that coming on the show was her way of coming out.
One of this season's cast members is Kai Wes, a self-described "jack of all trades" whose creative work has focused on making queer content and elevating the voices of queer and trans people. Wes identifies as nonbinary, and has extensively documented his coming out and medical transition on Instagram for his almost 17,000 followers. "In the age of being a millennial, turning to social media really helped me find the community that I was looking for," he says.
Wes had never watched the show before he was approached to be on it. "I'm not gonna lie, it's a trashy MTV dating show," he says, still chuckling, before explaining that he feels, largely because he and his castmembers aren't all heterosexual and cis, that this season was just a different dynamic. "I do have a huge problem with the way the cisgendered heterosexual men from past seasons talk about and talk to women. They're really disrespectful and gross and misogynistic in a lot of ways, right? The house that we had did not have that. Even though we had our own fair share of our own drama, I would like to think that the things that we were upset about were very significant sometimes, as opposed to very petty things or things that were really insulting." This includes a moment, he recalls, when a fight broke out over not calling someone “a bitch” because it's a gendered term.
This dynamic is abundantly clear from the first episode. The same old Are You the One? drama is raging, but there’s a bit more of a supportive group energy, including frank conversations about gender and sexuality and what the cast members have gone through to figure themselves out in that regard. Wes, for one, has a bonding moment with love interest Jenna Brown as she watches him take his testosterone shot.
"When you put a whole bunch of people that have been ostracized in a myriad ways, in both their personal, professional, familial lives, in addition to being ostracized in our own communities—because we all get shit left and right from the L and the G and the B and the T and all of that, for being someone who is sexually fluid, people don't realize—you put all of us in a house where suddenly your sexuality isn't the issue, I would tell you that I've never felt more welcomed in a group of people," Wes says. But he and his castmates still suck at relationships. And things still get gloriously messy.
FINDING THE ONE
Whether fans of AYTO will appreciate a more thoughtful energy as much as Wes does is still unclear, given the show's previous heterosexual focus; there are some who will likely be pulled in by the new season's conceit, and others who will be turned off.
And whether this season's cast will find love and happiness also depends on your perspective. "There's no secret behind it; [Ethan and my] family values aligned, what we wanted aligned, and we just worked hard for it,” Amber Lee Diamond says. Though she married her Perfect Match, her experiences are proof that there’s something unknowable about the way love ebbs and flows that no fancy calculation or expert matchmaker can claim in hindsight to have figured out. “It's not like we worked out because we were a Perfect Match; we're two people that found love and we just happened to meet on this crazy experience."
Whereas once dating was specifically oriented towards getting married and having a family, it has increasingly become a way to enjoy yourself without any clear end result required—even if many of us still long to find someone we are truly compatible with, someone who will put an end to our endless series of break-ups and one-night-stands. But those who don’t find love with their “one” (or anyone) on AYTO can end up finding something more than the show ever promised to deliver.
By the end of that first season, McIntee was largely removed from the drama of the house, both by choice and because the situation that so dominated the narrative—her passionate relationship with Tolleson—was alleviated by him going off to the Honeymoon Suite with another woman. Kuhn, her Perfect Match, was embroiled in a back-and-forth with Brittany Baldassari, who seemed more unwilling than him to let go of their relationship. He ended up picking McIntee in the final challenge, upsetting Baldassari. "I think me and Shanley really get along well, and if I can leave this competition with a lifelong friend, I'd be happy with that," Kuhn says during the finale.
Years later, McIntee—who is indeed, after some turmoil, friends with Kuhn—is sanguine about the role the show has played in her life, romantic and not. "My biggest takeaway from Are You the One? is that I learned a lot about myself and I also just saw where these other people had come from and what was out on the other side of the world or the other side of the country, what I could potentially do and who I could potentially meet,” she says. “I found my perfect match and he ain't my perfect match, but it opened new doors for me."
She lives in LA now, a move she could make because of the show, and is pursuing a career as a television host. Though she's still single, almost 30, she’s not interested in wasting time on the way to finding someone special. She may have played out her twenties on camera, but the result extracted from it remains the same as many of those who spent theirs watching her at home.
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask McIntee if she thinks reality TV is just a newer way for people to meet each other, as strange as that might seem to the average viewer. She doesn't skip a beat before agreeing. "It's true," she says. "Reality has fully become reality."
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.