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After Years of Tasteful Reality Shows, Netflix Is Diving Into the Trash Heap

From ‘Chef’s Table’ to ‘Dating Around,’ the streamer has historically devoted its ample resources to elevating a delightfully trashy genre. With ‘The Circle’ and ‘Love Is Blind,’ though, that’s starting to change.

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

There’s a phenomenon I’ve come to think of as Netflix Twinning. By design, the streaming service’s self-contained universe is so vast and caters to so many different audiences at once, it can accommodate shows that are each other’s equal and opposite. The earliest example was the strange coexistence of BoJack Horseman, an animated meta showbiz satire about the washed-up former star of a Full House–type sitcom, with Fuller House, the likely nadir of recycled ’90s nostalgia starring the actual cast of Full House. But over the years, more have cropped up: Stranger Things, the throwback, popcorn story of small-town kids investigating a top-secret facility, and Dark, the gloomy German version of the same; Master of None, the slickly produced dramedy about an actor who hosts a baking competition called Cupcake Wars, and Nailed It!, the Nicole Byer–MC’ed delight that feels like Cupcake Wars with more joie de vivre and less parodic edge.

Now, this uncanny effect has spread to Netflix’s nonscripted side. The company has been relatively slow to enter the reality space, and when it has, its offerings have tended toward slickly produced, tasteful operations—the kind that call themselves “docuseries,” a term that is to “reality TV” what “graphic novel” is to “comic book.” David Gelb’s Chef’s Table set the precedent, turning up its nose at Food Network demos one rigorously staged tasting menu at a time; the refreshingly low-stakes Dating Around updated the matchmaking show for the age of Tinder, when everyone stars in their own personal one. This year alone, Netflix released Cheer, a nuanced take on the underdog sports story, and The Goop Lab, a juice-cleansing spin on the behind-the-scenes workplace tour. Even Queer Eye is a self-conscious corrective to its makeover show peers. Recently, though, Netflix has started to expand its range. Rap contest Rhythm + Flow and design challenge Next in Fashion established a bulkhead in the competition space. But with two recent premieres, Netflix has gone all in on the sort of wacky, high-concept, insistently lowbrow setup that makes reality at once so derided and so addictive. At Netflix, you can now have your HBO and your VH1.

January’s The Circle and this month’s Love Is Blind, which premieres Thursday, share a flagrantly absurd and oddly similar premise: a standard reality template—Real World–style cohabitation, Bachelor-style meat market—minus in-person interaction. In the context of their mutual home, however, each series reads like an active rebuke of lessons learned elsewhere on the platform. The Circle, a “social media competition” in which contenders only interact via voice-activated messaging system, resembles nothing so much as a supersized episode of Black Mirror, the dystopian anthology exploring the pitfalls of technology. (The modular apartments where cast members spend their time are not entirely unlike Daniel Kaluuya’s screen-lined cell in “Fifteen Million Merits.”) Love Is Blind, which asks participants to commit to marriage without ever laying eyes on their prospective partner, reads like an allergic reaction to Dating Around, which promises nothing more for its costars than a second rendezvous.

From a thousand feet up, Netflix’s reality strategy starts to look a lot like its scripted one: start with critical acclaim, ramp up to less prestigious crowd-pleasers. From the few inches separating me from my laptop screen while binging these shows, the appeal to individual viewers is obvious. Stunts, whether physical or emotional, are a spectacle; we love to watch others endure what we never would, whether that’s going days without speaking to anyone but a wall-mounted television or agreeing to go from introduction to matrimony in less than six weeks. Much of reality TV is an arms race to find the next great gimmick, and interpersonal relationships without flesh-and-blood people are as good a gimmick as any.

True to its internet-sociology aspirations, The Circle has become a viral sensation in the weeks since its release. Despite its heavy use of terms like “blocking” and “status update,” The Circle doesn’t yield much insight into the actual workings of social media. That’s because The Circle is about the isolated interactions of eight human beings, not billions of them. The cast’s communication system most closely resembles a Slack exchange between coworkers, with all the forced friendliness and peacocking those interactions entail. It’s impossible to watch a contestant sublimate their obvious disgust into an “LOL, so cute!” without thinking of the last “just circling back!” message you sent.

The Circle may not have much to say about how we comport ourselves on the internet, but it does prove how fascinating relationships can still be without shouting matches, tearful exchanges, or, with the exception of one chaste kiss, sex. The unlikely friendship between Jersey Shore castoff Joey and Silicon Valley Mennonite Shubham is genuinely sweet; the deception of a man pretending to be his girlfriend or a dorky artist passing as a gym rat is extreme, but not all that different from the performance of any interaction between strangers. Production sleights of hand also work to enliven the visual monotony of people talking to themselves in their underwear. Silly challenges force participants to paint a picture or bake a cake. The “host,” comedian Michelle Buteau, is more like a narrator, her voice-over providing a steady stream of insouciant commentary. Still, what The Circle does best is strip the reality format down to its most essential core: people sizing each other up, deciding who they want to be—to each other, to viewers at home—and who others really are.

Love Is Blind is a cringier experience, the kind of show that’s bound to get as many eyeballs from ironic curiosity as credulous investment. (No disrespect here: That dynamic has worked out pretty well for the show’s most obvious influence.) The “blind” part of the premise is certainly the flashiest: 20 individuals, 10 men and 10 women, sort themselves into pairs based on nothing more than a few days’ worth of conversation, separated by a wall. But as laid out by hosts Vanessa and Nick Lachey, what comes next is far more horrifying: Newly forged couples will go on vacation, move in together, and meet each other’s parents on a highly accelerated timeline. Everything is set to culminate in a wedding, prescheduled for 40 days after the “experiment”—the Lacheys’ word—begins. It’s like a slasher film for commitment-phobes.

As the emphasis on marriage suggests, Love Is Blind is a small-c conservative show, with many participants hailing from more traditional areas like the South. The gender-segregated living quarters and 50/50 split make heterosexuality the rigid default. (One male cast member has previously dated other men, which is treated as a borderline-shameful, earth-shattering secret.) After last year’s all-pansexual season of MTV’s Are You the One?, the setup can’t help but feel dated. Even the aesthetic feels slightly retrograde: Almost all the women have the long, loosely curled hairstyle ubiquitous on TV and almost nonexistent anywhere else; most of the men are muscular and masculine, defaulting to frat house antics like a push-up contest. Such reactionary tendencies are hardly unusual in the context of reality TV as a whole, whatever its boundary-pushing pretensions. But in light of Netflix’s more upscale entries into the field, they’re much more exceptional.

There’s real entertainment value in watching people act according to a wholly alien value system. (For a coastal elite like myself, Love Is Blind might as well be a safari.) But even on its own terms, Love Is Blind falls short. As a dating show, it’s overcrowded. The Bachelor, at least in its non-Paradise incarnations, wisely spends an entire season on variants of a single relationship. On Love Is Blind, we don’t spend nearly enough time with any individual couple to buy into their connection, particularly under circumstances as extreme as a literal blind date. And as a Circle-style gamble, Love Is Blind proves insufficiently committed to the bit. The “blind” part of the show is essentially over a third of the way through the season, when it becomes more of a grueling immersion therapy in the challenges of long-term monogamy. Love Is Blind never trusts in what The Circle capably proves: The relationships themselves are enough. I’d love to see a version of Love Is Blind that spent a little more time in its elaborately constructed pods, where cast members interact through a frosted pane one likens to a prop from Frozen.

Together, though, The Circle and Love Is Blind represent a different kind of Netflix Twinning: more and less successful executions of a larger corporate game plan. Whatever their individual strengths and weaknesses, the series represent a clear pivot on the part of their distributor. As our nerve endings get ever less sensitive, as the volume required to break through the noise gets ever louder, tasteful revisionism is no longer sufficient. Netflix’s mask is off, and the games have begun.