Humanity is messy. If sci-fi—the many Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, for example—has taught us anything, to be human is to be strange, emotional, jealous, gross and horny. It’s why reality shows appeal to us. They’re us at our most, well, us. Dramas that are too overwritten grate on our sense of humanity. People don’t talk like that.
MTV’s Are You the One? (henceforth known as AYTO) exists at the conflicted crossroads between our utmost humanity and a technological myth that would hope to tame it. The series combines the trashy joy of watching drunken sub-Bachelor contestants (in terms of looks, professionalism and desperation) traverse a highly constructed hookup environment with the tactical joys and theorizing of Survivor.
A matchmaking experiment whose contestants are introduced not with application videos showcasing their talents at survival or social grace but with their terrible dating history, AYTO (allegedly) uses personality tests, interviews, and a mysterious algorithm to determine which of the eleven guys and eleven girls are perfect matches for each other. They have 10 weeks living in the same house to figure out whose matches are whose. If they can match up correctly, they win the prize of one million dollars. Well, total.
These 21- to 24-year-old contestants (nobody older, per the contestant application website) can look forward to the much more modest sum of $35,000 each. In previous seasons, it’s been ten guys and ten girls (or ten guys and eleven girls, with one girl having two “perfect matches” for additional drama), but in the current fifth season the contestants must match up an additional couple in their ten weeks.
Aside from a lower likelihood of the contestants stumbling upon their matches by solely following their libido, the fifth season introduces a few other new features that make the dual draws of the game even more complex: If the crew “blacks out”—gets zero matches correct at the end of an episode—their prize money is halved (rather than reduced by $250,000 as in previous seasons); and the contestants can trade information (a confirmed or denied match in the Truth Booth, which we’ll talk about later) for additional prize money, though it makes the game harder to win.
With these additional speed bumps, this season seems like it’ll focus on the greed and statistical savvy of a bunch of drunk 23-year-olds fighting their knack for infatuation, embroiling the show’s most despicable and entertaining aspects in combat.
But it’s possible to beat.
Real (smart) people have used real probabilities to solve AYTO’s mathematical orgy. There’s a logic here: “Mastermind meets Temptation Island,” as The Daily Beast’s Brandy Zadrozny puts it. There are 3,628,800 possible combinations for the winning lineup (yay, factorials!), but the guy who has his finger on the pulse of the problem is 22-year-old MIT grad Nick Uhlenhuth, who updates AYTO’s Wikipedia page each week with the odds of each member in the house being somebody else’s perfect match.
He’s created an algorithm to track match possibilities, confirmations, and rejections into one probability-producing table. You can find his work on Wikipedia or at GitHub.
It’s not like the people on the show are invested in solving this quandary, or even able to do so. For starters, they have no pens, papers, computers, or phones in the house. There are no grids that can be drawn. Which is fine, because nothing’s worse than watching people work out a math problem.
What they lack in personal technology they make up for in alcohol. Host Ryan Devlin has said that alcohol is always available and recommended by the show. A Season Two contestant admitted that for ten weeks she “didn’t go a single day without having at least one [alcoholic] beverage.” It’s a cultural wasteland, a prison of sex and debauchery. That’s the kind of environment that leads to something like marriage talks only a few weeks into a reality show. Our ideas of time and how it maps to relationship progress fade away in the AYTO house. Doubling down is easy; moving on is hard. As Devlin continued, breakups are crushing in the house because “the wounds don’t have a chance to heal. You see that person immediately and all the time, then eventually hooking up with someone else.”
The house itself is a strangely charming party jail, with a communal sleeping room and a Fitzgerald-ian layout perfect for Gatsby’s intimate large parties—including plenty of alcoves prime for hushed chats. There’s also the Boom Boom Room—the world of flesh and the Devil—a single bedroom with one explicit purpose. Yes, the house has one designated and highly trafficked sex bed (sort of like a poor man’s Fifty Shades of Grey). This architectural demon is contrasted against the other named structure on the show’s campus, The Truth Booth. This is the one bastion of honesty in a world of sexual paranoia, where the contestants can verify one couple’s match (or non-match) per week.
The Truth Booth houses some of the show’s B-movie fake futuristic technology, including multiple hand-scanner apps on various tablets and a neon green body scan to reinforce the idea that, yes, this show’s touting an algorithm that really can help you. The algorithm and the host, these arbiters of an unknown yet unassailable truth, and the undying irrational loyalty of some of these fucked-up people, are sort of beautiful—despite the audience’s knowledge that everyone is behaving like logic-less animals.
This beauty is closely tied to the completely endearing buy-in of the contestants. They’re ingénues on the other side of the sexual activity spectrum. These contestants embody an old-school philosophy of one’s relationship to society. The 19th century French flâneurs—people that literally entertained by strolling the streets of Paris—were both professional and passionate about, according to Charles Baudelaire, becoming “one flesh with the crowd.” Sexy, right?
They accepted and engaged with hyper-stimulation instead of hiding from it like normal overwhelmed people. AYTO’s reality show flâneurs inherit this historical idea of entertainment through dandyism—sex, booze, sports and beauty (both environmental and carnal). The show is a bacchanal of genital delights that draws in a certain kind of player: It’s Jersey Shore with rules and challenges.
They don’t just fall in love, either—they fall in love at first (and last) sight. Despite being proven wrong in their initial (sometimes Day One) selections, which is love at first sight, some contestants cling to these relationships until the very end, even if they’ve been correctly matched up with someone else. That loyalty, that whole “this is the last time I’ll see this person, and for what it’s worth, we loved” thing, is love at last sight, and a hallmark of the flâneur. During the span of a season, the contestants might not have this emotional maturity, but their experience is inextricable from overwhelming, hopeful love.
Our hatred of and our hope for these poor, lovelorn naïfs tossed into an inhumane puzzle prevent worse real-world feelings. Holier-than-thou antagonism keeps the peace when its underlying, unlikely promise of love keeps a positive spark of hope alive. We need this hatred as an outlet so we can appreciate those around us—it’s why couples love watching dating shows.
Whether you watch the show as a game theorist or a wine-swilling hate-watcher, it’s hard to avoid getting addicted to at least one aspect of AYTO. Ulterior motives are left at the door and faith is placed in a higher power (which includes but is not limited to gods, technologies and, yes, producers) for love. The show’s attraction is surreal exploitation and base human behavior, except that, in our technologically obsessed dating environment, everyone on the show believes they’re being helped. And perhaps by opening themselves up to the chance, they are.
Are You the One? airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on MTV.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.