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From 'The Ultimatum' to 'Love is Blind,' why Netflix is head over heels for reality romance

“The Bachelor’s” cultural prominence may be waning, but Netflix’s Romantic Reality Universe is waiting in the wings to take its place. And we can't get enough.
Image: Cast members in season one of \"The Ultimatum\" on Netflix.
"The Ultimatum" on Netflix premieres on April 6.Jody Domingue / Netflix

Two weeks ago, Netflix made its lovelorn viewers a modest proposal: “Hey all you hottie biscottis,” sang “Too Hot to Handle” star Harry Jowsey. “We know that dating can be a real drag. But luckily, Netflix has endless ways for us to explore love.”

Cue the cheesy boy band moves and lyrics, courtesy of some of the streaming giant’s reality stars: Jowsey, Nathan Webb and Nathan Soan Mngomezulu of “Too Hot to Handle,” and Matt Barnett and Jarrette Jones of “Love Is Blind.” And don’t forget Nick Lachey, formerly the most famous member of the not-so-famous group 98 Degrees, and currently the co-host (along with wife, Vanessa Lachey) of Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” and “The Ultimatum,” which dropped its first batch of episodes on Wednesday.

The carefully crafted lyrical press release, titled “Love Has No Off Season,” made one thing very clear: Netflix is going all in on reality romance shows. The binge-watching will rarely have to pause, with a seemingly never-ending queue of new romantic reality shows. “The Ultimatum” season 2, “Too Hot to Handle” season 4 and “Love Is Blind” season 3 are already in the pipeline, as is a second season of “Indian Matchmaking,” along with new originals “Jewish Matchmaking” and “Dated and Related.”

And Netflix is far from alone in seizing this moment. HBO Max has “FBOY Island” and “12 Dates of Christmas.” Paramount+ has the British import “Love Island.” Peacock has the rebooted “Temptation Island” and the Bridgerton-inspired dating series, “The Courtship.”

If we want, we can simply float away on a sea of constantly rotating romantic foibles, each reminding us of what we desire and what we don’t — but leaving us little time to consider how to get it.

Perhaps the answer lies in the simple truth that most of us want (need!) some form of romantic love and companionship.

The proliferation of streaming services plus a global pandemic created the optimal conditions for a reality TV renaissance: lower budgets, tighter turnarounds, fewer locations and a public trapped at home, ready to consume content. This may explain why so many reality dating and romance shows are being pitched, produced and greenlighted, but why are so many of us watching? And watching… and watching… and, yes Netflix! I am still watching.

Perhaps the answer lies in the simple truth that most of us want (need!) some form of romantic love and companionship. We want to feel safe and secure and seen. But the search for romantic love can be painfully difficult. It can run us ragged, wear us down, leave us wondering if it will ever be our turn for such a connection. And even if we find that connection, will it last? Will it fade? Will it be lost to circumstances outside of our control?

Easier not to think about it. (As I write this, I can feel my anxiety levels rising.) Instead, how lovely it is to be able to work through our anxieties via people willing to put their lives on hold, and on camera.

Why would anyone do this, I found myself thinking from the safety of my couch and a healthy relationship, as I watched the early episodes of “The Ultimatum.” Host Lachey is our guide as we watch six long-term couples flail around dating each other’s partners during “trial marriages,” in the hope of finding “clarity” on whether they should marry their original partners.

As I gaped in horror, devouring every screener episode Netflix would allow me to access, I could hear my own smug voice in my own dumb head: “You are so much better than them.” I sat there reassuring myself, while simultaneously recognizing the panicked jealousy I would likely experience if I were ever put into such a situation. The distance that reality TV offers fans allows us to engage in self-admonishment without the shame that often accompanies such introspection.

As with Netflix’s other two flagship reality romance shows — “Love Is Blind,” where singles date and get engaged while trapped in pods unable to see each other, and “Too Hot to Handle,” where sexy singles are challenged to form emotional rather than physical connections at the behest of robot host Lana — “The Ultimatum” is framed as something elevated. It’s not a TV show, it’s an experiment. It’s a process. It will, we are promised, elucidate something real for the couples involved. By the end, the Lacheys tell us, the people who have signed up for this locked box experiment will have “clarity.”

Clarity! It sounds so nice. What if we could figure out love and dating and maybe even ourselves without years of aimlessly swiping, or trying to figure out how the hell to make Zoom dating sexy, or grappling with the enormous time commitment of dating and/or couples therapy. All it takes, according to Nick and Vanessa Lachey, is eight highly curated weeks. It’s a seductive promise.

In 2014, Roxane Gay described the experience of watching “The Bachelor,” the longest-running reality dating show on network television, in The New York Times. She compared the sacrifices women must make to reach their “happily ever after” in classic fairytales to the trials and tribulations of putting yourself at the mercy of reality television producers. “Instead of bleeding from the foot to fit a golden slipper,” she wrote of the people we watch stumbling through The Process, “they bleed their dignity, one episode at a time.”

“The Bachelor’s” cultural prominence may be waning, but Netflix’s Romantic Reality Universe is waiting in the wings to take its place. The journey is now an experiment, but the desire at its core remains the same.

And we can’t get enough of it. Our appetites are voracious — for love, for roadmaps, for people doing it all wrong so we can reassure ourselves that we are getting something right. These soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves are exposed and fed by the Netflix algorithm. And so, we keep watching.