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‘Love Is Blind’ Doesn’t Exactly Ask Whether Love Is Blind

One of Netflix’s first forays into the reality television universe is chaotic and full of unannounced rules. Somehow, it still manages to be captivating entertainment.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Reality show reunions are, in theory, a chance for participants to process the strange series of events they’ve just been through and apply the perspective that comes with distance from the production’s heightened circumstances. (In practice, of course, they’re a chance for producers to wring an extra hour of juice out of an already exhausted set of story lines.) With Netflix’s Love Is Blind, however, Thursday’s reunion wasn’t just a reality check for the cast. It was a wake-up call for the audience, too—a chance to reflect on exactly what had inspired us, over the past three weeks, to collectively lose our minds.

When Love Is Blind launched the day before Valentine’s Day, it was easy to dismiss as a gimmick: an unofficial companion piece to January hit The Circle, and another attempt by Netflix to cement its foothold in the reality TV space. But just because a show has a gimmick doesn’t mean it won’t make for entertaining television. In fact, Love Is Blind had two gimmicks, difficult to explain but irresistible to watch: First, contestants spent 16-hour days in isolated chambers known as “pods,” choosing a partner to marry without ever interacting face-to-face. Then, couples were fast-tracked from engagement to wedding ceremony in a period of weeks, hitting traditional roadblocks like family introductions and moving in while still adjusting to the physical reality of each other’s existence. And everyone knows what happens when a moving car hits a bump in the road at full speed.

Netflix trickled out installments of Love Is Blind in chunks, a strategy it’s adopted with other unscripted series like rap competition Rhythm + Flow. The release format split the difference between the addictive hook of a binge and the nail-biting suspense of a weekly rollout. With Love Is Blind, the formula proved devastatingly effective. Think pieces were written. Follow-up interviews were booked. Memes were made. Netflix introduced a “Top 10” feature solely to assure you that, yes, everyone else on the planet really is watching this thing, and no, Jessica feeding wine to her dog was not something we’d hallucinated in a moment of weakness.

The reunion assembled all six couples who made it out of the pod stage for a debrief moderated by ostensible hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey. The setup addressed one of Love Is Blind’s many unstated truths: Despite the show’s name, the action didn’t truly begin until contenders left the pods, saw one another in the flesh, and got on the fast track to tying the knot. (Cast members who didn’t pair off, including a 31-year-old male virgin, were essentially disappeared from the show with no preamble or exit interview; a few additional engagements were released into the wild to live out their betrothals off camera.)

In 50 minutes of edited conversation on a bright-purple set that looked like it would fall over in a stiff wind, the Love Is Blind crew rehashed the season’s core plot points: Carlton and Diamond’s Beyoncé-quoting blowout following the revelation that Carlton was sexually fluid; Cameron and Lauren’s fairy-tale romance, the single pure thing to come out of an otherwise tawdry experience; most uncomfortably, Jessica’s undisguised personal issues with abandonment and drinking. There were also necessary updates on what’s transpired in the near year and a half(!) since filming in fall 2018. Gigi and Damian got back together after he dumped her at the altar! Jessica moved to L.A., world capital of women in their 30s trying to make a fresh start! Amber is blond now!

The reunion was ultimately short on fireworks, unsurprising for an effort that followed five back-to-back cliffhanger nuptials. Producers tried their best with a dramatic, proposal-style apology from Carlton and a brief moment of tension between Amber and Jessica over their mutual pursuit of Amber’s now-husband Barnett. But the special ultimately felt like an opportunity for spectators and stars alike to readjust to reality, where two people who enjoy each other’s company can simply date instead of choosing between permanent estrangement and a pre-fab wedding ceremony paid for by a streaming service.

As Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk has observed, Love Is Blind garnered much of its chaotic energy from the simultaneous presence of rules and those rules’ total lack of explanation to the audience. A feature-length finale gradually implied that, barring any catastrophic blowups like Carlton and Diamond’s, couples had been told to withhold a final breakup or commitment until they were literally at the altar. Such silent constraints yielded some of the intended drama, as when Gigi—one of the more conventional reality show characters in the ensemble, a firecracker who tells her fiancé he’s straight-up trash in bed mid-argument—chews out her would-be spouse in a wedding dress. And sometimes, it prolonged relationships that were bad from the start until they were outright painful to watch. Jessica was never going to marry Mark, a fitness instructor 10 years her junior whose emotional availability she couldn’t trust. We had to watch them try to make it work for hours regardless.

The Lacheys kept telling us, over and over again, that Love Is Blind was supposed to be a test of whether love is, well, blind—if a purely emotional connection would be enough to power a relationship. But participants’ “blindness” turned out to be more circumstantial than literal. For one thing, the cast members are universally young, straight-sized, and conventionally telegenic, a choice that avoided cruel gambits (“This person you thought you liked is not someone you’re ‘supposed’ to be attracted to!”) but made the initial setup feel thin. As the hours rolled on, though, other forms of conflict became far more engrossing. Amber told Barnett she’d amassed $20,000 of student debt she wasn’t paying off. Jessica sublimated her obvious anxiety into heavy drinking and fights about nothing. Damian’s parents refused to meet someone he’d met on a reality show. The show’s accelerated timeline becomes a sustained effort to puncture the bubble of lust, letting the real world rush in one hard reality at a time.

Love Is Blind was hard to stop watching for many of the same reasons as any lowbrow spectacle: Seeing outsized personalities in atypical environments, all from the safety of our own pod-like living rooms is fun. Still, there’s a reason the show has earned the most attention for the post-pod episodes, which pare down the cast and start fleshing out their specific quirks. Many of the hurdles the central relationships face aren’t that different from standard stumbling points: different financial habits and goals; family backgrounds that don’t always mesh; compatibility that’s spiritual but not sexual. They’re just initially hidden from the parties affected, less by a glowing divider than the physical isolation of how they met. Sometimes, the real world is a salve; Damian and Gigi, seemingly, were able to build a more sustainable relationship on their own terms. More often than not, it’s a rude awakening, reminding couples a bond is about merging two complete lives, not just two personalities.

Love Is Blind shows that love, whatever the reunion’s final show of hands claims, self-evidently isn’t. Then again, everyone on-screen and off had to know that going in. Love is about more than just physical appearance. Yet what lies beyond looks isn’t revealed by trapping contestants in a locked-down testing facility without internet or in-laws—it’s only hidden further. Love Is Blind is a misnomer, and not just because the blind dating is over before the season starts in earnest. It’s because this is a show about the blinders coming off.