I’ve mentioned before my interest in television dating shows. The BBC has a new format and I’ve been watching the first couple of episodes to get an idea of how it works.
The title is “Sexy Beasts” and the gimmick is that they use the prosthetics and make-up department to disguise the hopefuls as aliens, monsters or creatures so as to take looks out of the equation when the people meet in person: as Susan Calman (narrating the the show) says in the introduction: “Will true love blossom when what you see is definitely not what you get?”
The format: one person meets three of their desired gender (so far that’s been het couples – boy meets three girls, girl meets three boys – but I’m hopeful later episodes might be gay/lesbian based) for a cross-table chat, then selects one to dump; the two remaining hopefuls go on “activity dates” and finally the chooser picks one to “go home with”. Although the actual conclusion is that they have a “champagne moment” set up: if, after seeing each other’s real faces, the successful pair both want to meet again, they turn up – if not, they stay away. So far, it’s been a “only one turned up” and a “both turned up”.
They say they take looks out of the equation, but the first thing I notice is that at least some of the hopefuls’ disguises are based on their self-descriptions. Matt “the dog” (choosing on show 1) introduced himself as “quite loyal”; Matty on show 2 called himself “a nice guy but a bit of a demon” and so they gave him a “devil” face (although he’s from Liverpool, and I thought the “Red Devils” were Manchester United?) So it’s possible to infer something about what they told the casting crew about themselves from the faces they’ve been given.
In some ways, some hopefuls adopted personas to match their new looks – Matt the dog most notably (although I’m sure the producers encouraged some of the behaviours). Others seemed more nonplussed by it, and it’s curious that it wasn’t always the ones who identified their looks as their best asset in dating. In fact, it seems to be the ones who were a little more shy in the “revealed face” clips tend to be stiffer (no, NOT like that! you lot have dirty minds…) when in costume, almost as though the anonymity weighed more heavily, whereas the more confident or outgoing ones seemed to feel the mask gave them a little extra freedom or licence to play up. The better-calibrated ones spotted when this did or didn’t go down well (Matt’s dog behaviour seemed to down well, for instance).
A common theme at the “reveal” where the masks/disguises came off, is that participants remark, “You don’t look like I thought you would.” Often this is followed by a specific observation, usually to do with the hair. I find this intriguing in that it implies that the participants have tried to imagine each others’ appearances and there are clear hints that interest/decisions are formed based on these (invariably flawed) assumptions. The show is supposed to be all about removing looks from the equation, but instead it highlights more clearly that people associate looks and personality as correlating to one another (it may also be that they make guesses about facial shape and hairstyle based on the costume and/or the physical build and height of the person they meet).
Unusually, there is no “follow-up” segment at the end of the show: for the viewer, the “success” or “failure” of the pairing is whether or not they both show up for the champagne date. If a relationship of any sort develops after that scene, or they actually end up deleting each other’s numbers from their phones and never speaking again, we don’t find out.
I would not have picked Calman as the voice of a new dating show, although she is one of my favourite comedians at the moment. However, it turns out that her delivery and wit (although who knows how much of that is scripted) is perfect for this format. It makes me want to see a revival of Streetmate with Calman doing Davina McCall’s job of running around doing cold approaches on behalf of some random person she’s picked. (It’s probably a good thing I’m not in any way shape or form responsible for any commissioning decisions made by any TV company anywhere. But I would love that job!)
I wanted to use reviewing the show to make some clever observation or point about dating, gender, feminism or whatever. Turns out I haven’t really found that key insightful conclusion. Some intriguing observations and remarks: how the disguises affected behaviour, and how appearance still plays some part in the process after all. But nothing I would point to and say, “That illuminates so much about the dating world/experience.” But then, maybe I don’t need that for every dating show.