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“Are You the One?” throws 20 singles together with the task of finding predetermined mates.

MTV,

Reality dating shows: Trying on the ties that bind

  • Article by: Jon Caramanica
  • New York Times
  • January 28, 2014 - 3:51 PM

Nothing better than being trapped in a house with your love, right? The extreme intimacy, the disintegration of private space, the presumption of omnipresence — those are the building blocks of a lasting relationship, no?

At a minimum, it’s a great setup for television, as seen in a set of new dating and romance reality shows that underscore how feeble bonds can be, even when partners are reinforcing them every day, or doing their best to.

Take the wacky and appealing “Are You the One?,” which recently premiered on MTV. It’s a dating show that strands 20 single people at a resort and encourages them to seek out their soul mates, with two twists: Each person has been matched by experts with another person on the show, and if those matched pairs find one another, the whole group splits $1 million.

This is the latest in a string of MTV love-themed shows: The sheer numbers, along with the humanly imperfect search for what’s presumed to be a perfect match, create an impressive variety of simultaneous romantic tensions. At the end of each episode, the contestants couple up — some happily, some otherwise — and are told how many are correctly paired, but not who. The tension between those who stubbornly stick to their guts and those who are strategically seeking the money is high right away. In a later episode, the contestants get frisky during an extended game of spin the bottle, though that might end up hurting the ones who do connect with their true match, having just watched their dream partner lock lips with other housemates.

In the first few episodes, it’s striking how casually and easily the participants try one another on for size, and how quickly they’re willing to mistrust their own instincts in favor of what the show — via the “truth booth” — tells them about their compatibility. Shanley and Chris T. bond within minutes, but when it’s revealed they’re not a match a day or two later, Shanley moves on with barely a thought, leaving Chris T. slightly stunned. Almost instantly, there are love triangles — some premised on sincerity, some on game-playing.

The same goes for “Real World: Ex-plosion,” Wednesdays on MTV. The season begins as all “Real World” seasons do, with strangers in a house getting to know one another. But four weeks in, the cast members’ significant exes will move into the house, creating the possibility for renewed sparks, as well as throwing water on any new sparks.

This season of “Real World,” like many recent ones, operates at a frenzied clip of binge drinking and casual intimacy. (The editing has been updated to match, a smart move.) The coupling is intense: Cory and Jenny consummated things quickly, and have already gone back and forth on their status, while Thomas and Jamie have effectively begun a domestic partnership.

That ugliness is around the corner is certain. But in the meantime, watching these couples thrown together by circumstance as they adjust their emotions on the fly in response to extreme proximity is this season’s most rewarding viewing.

Over time, “Are You the One?” won’t be just about compatibility, either, but also about the very real wages of cohabitation: When couples succeed in uncovering their match, they get to spend the rest of the time finding out whether the experts are on to something.

That setup, though, isn’t so dissimilar from the one that provides the grist for “90 Day Fiancé,” Sundays on TLC. In this docu-series, which is actually quite sweet and winningly awkward, four engaged couples — in each case, an American man and a foreign woman — are followed for the 90-day period in which they must marry, under the terms of the U.S. government’s fiancé visa. (Otherwise, the woman must return to her home country.)

In every case, it’s the woman who’s more mature than the man — even the wide-eyed Kirlyam, from a tiny town in Brazil, threatens to be too much for the bumbling Alan. All the couples appear to believe they’ve discovered true love, but they might be undone by actual cohabitation; in most cases, the partners have spent just a few weeks together, if that.

This is supposed to be a period of real joy for these couples, who are already working from brittle foundations. But the reality checks come hard and swift: Getting to know each other well may be exactly what tears them apart.

© 2014 Star Tribune