SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Peahens choose peacocks with more elaborate feathers, earthworms mate based on size, and baboons judge on hierarchy, but humans, as more intellectually evolved creatures, have been socialized instead to seek out love.
For a tiny subset of the species, this mating ritual involves 10 days on a television set in Greater Los Angeles, where participants sit alone in 12-by-14-foot rooms listening to the disembodied voices of potential mates discuss such topics as their ideal number of offspring.
That is the basis for “Love Is Blind,” the voyeuristic Netflix reality series built around buzzwords, booze and mild sensory deprivation that is set to release its Season 4 finale on Friday and air a live reunion special on Sunday. On the show, 30 singles sign up to date each other, separated inside these rooms — known as “pods” — with their conversations fed through speakers. They don’t see whom they’re talking to until they decide to get engaged — a commitment that also comes with a hastily arranged wedding where they can say “I do” or walk away.
Pods are set up to film, hydrate and intoxicate contestants.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times
If it all sounds rushed, chaotic, a bit unhinged, the show’s creator, Chris Coelen, understands. Brandon Riegg, the Netflix executive who greenlighted the pitch about five years ago, described the idea with a synonym for bat guano, and he recalled telling Coelen that he would be lucky to get even one couple out of it.
Despite the naysayers, Coelen felt confident that people would get engaged. After all, contestants on his show “Married at First Sight” had been marrying strangers for years.
“People want to find love,” he said in an interview last month on the “Love Is Blind” set, where production was beginning on a new season, “and they’re willing to do some pretty wild things to find it.”
The show premiered in February 2020, taking off as viewers were adjusting to their own versions of pandemic-mandated pod life, and has continued to captivate audiences. More than 30 million Netflix subscribers watched during the first four weeks after its premiere, the company reported, and Season 4, which kicked off in March, topped the previous seasons’ opening weekends by hours watched. Last year, according to Nielsen, “Love Is Blind” was the eighth most-watched original streaming series in the United States, ahead of “The Crown” and the “Lord of the Rings” spinoff “The Rings of Power.” Versions of the show based in Japan and Brazil have already been released, with U.K. and Swedish adaptations in the works.
Kim Kardashian, Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Daniel Radcliffe are among the show’s celebrity fans, and contestants have built gigantic social media followings, with one married participant from Season 1, Lauren Speed-Hamilton, reaching 2.5 million followers on Instagram. The series has also fueled cottage industries on TikTok of amateur detectives digging into the contestants’ back stories and of therapists analyzing the relationship dynamics onscreen. At times, “Love Is Blind” has prompted musings on our fraying social fabric, with commentators declaring that the show “speaks to the state of modern romance” and “holds a mirror to a reality we’d rather ignore.”
For Netflix, its appeal was more fundamental. It matched the streamer’s ethos around unscripted programming, Riegg said: relatable and optimistic.
“If you look at some of the most beloved and established unscripted franchises, they’ve been running for a very long time,” he added. “And I don’t think there’s any reason that ours can’t do the same.”
‘Whatever happens, happens.’
So how did “Love Is Blind,” with its absurd conceit, manage to position itself as the closest thing to “The Bachelor” for the cable-less generation?
Coelen said it’s because the show puts it all out there, revealing contestants’ explosive dramatics and romantic indifference without coaxing anything out of them.
Producers have included footage of one participant, Andrew Liu, appearing to apply eye drops to simulate tears for the camera after he was dumped in Season 3. One couple in the current season had enough of each other and split before they got to the altar. And when Shake Chatterjee, from Season 2, tried to suss out what his dates looked like by asking if he could feasibly carry them on his shoulders, the producers said they never considered intervening.
The hosts are a married couple, Vanessa and Nick Lachey — the latter of whom was the subject of his own early-aughts reality series when he married Jessica Simpson. They rarely interact with participants, occasionally dropping in during the season and serving as therapist-like mediators during the reunions.
“We just watch. We involve ourselves in nothing,” said Ally Simpson (no relation to Jessica), one of the show’s executive producers. During production, she sits next to Coelen in the control room, where they monitor as many as 10 dates happening simultaneously.
But the concept of authenticity gets complicated when the location for the dates is a 68,000-square-foot studio next to an Amazon warehouse, where dozens of crew members zip around with walkie talkies and 81 cameras pan and zoom to catch every blush and giggle. (Contestants stay in hotels overnight, though the napping and cooking can sometimes make it appear as though they’re living on set à la “The Real World.”)
Inside the two single-sex lounges where the singles congregate, the plants are plastic, a digital fire roars onscreen, and those metallic goblets that have become the show’s mascots are adhered to the shelves so that guests don’t knock them over.
When Kwame Appiah, a tech worker who appears on the current season, says of a woman he has never seen, “I’ve just been smitten for a really long time,” he means six days.
Then there’s the influencer industrial complex. In the three years since the show’s debut, cast members with new followings have promoted Smirnoff Spicy Tamarind vodka, Bud Light hard seltzer and Fenty lipstick, as well as yogurt and laxatives.
When it comes to choosing a cast, the producers say they try to weed out those seeking social media fame or joining on a whim, but if such types slip into the roster, Coelen said, he believes they still tend to become invested in the process.
“We build the machinery, and whatever happens, happens,” he said.
The machinery starts with Donna Driscoll, the show’s head of casting, who has been with Coelen’s production company, Kinetic Content, since the second season of “Married at First Sight.” Interested singles apply online, but Driscoll’s team also seeks people out on social media and at bars, grocery stores and church groups.
A third-party company conducts background checks and psychological evaluations, and the casting team creates what are called “compatibility grids,” a spreadsheet listing key characteristics, including the desire to have children. They are effectively trying to “stack the deck,” Coelen said, so that each person comes in with some compatibility, at least on paper, with others. (If love really is blind, it is also heavily vetted.)
On the show, the contestants describe being at their wits’ end with dating norms of the 2020s, which tend to involve more swiping on touchscreens than IRL spontaneity.
“My parents are like, ‘Why don’t you just go meet a guy at a bar?” said Chelsea Griffin, a speech-language pathologist from Seattle who is on the current season. “Who does that anymore?”
Instead, with her phone confiscated, she met a guy at a production facility where a maze of dark hallways leads to pods and to a room where contestants sit for one-on-one interviews with a blurred backdrop positioned behind them.
At the start of filming, budding romances begin with 10-minute speed dates, lengthening each day until the most lovestruck couples chat for hours, sometimes lingering until 3 a.m.
“The rate at which you go in this experience, it’s hard for my mom to fathom. It’s hard for my brother to fathom,” Griffin said. “I could sit and try to articulate and explain the entire thing, and people still wouldn’t get it.”
Members of the production team listen on headsets, logging moments like when someone says “I love you” or tears flow. They move contestant headshots around a bulletin board as they pair off and break up, like detectives on a crime procedural.
At the end of the day, the contestants rank their dates on paper. The team then uses a variation on a Nobel Prize-winning algorithm, created by two mathematicians in the 1960s, to find a dating schedule in which everyone has matches. For the first four seasons, Simpson and Coelen organized the data by hand to determine the next day’s lineup of dates, but more recently, Simpson plugs the rankings into computer software.
By day seven, the men are able to pick out engagement rings provided by the show. By day nine, after couples have typically spent about 30 total hours dating — albeit in separate rooms — some of them pop the question. If the answer is a yes, they finally meet.
Then, it’s time to plan the wedding. Singles have been choosing among suitors they couldn’t see as far back as the 1960s (see “The Dating Game”), but “Love Is Blind” makes marriage its clear, televised conclusion.
“You think about reality shows as being these zany, deviant enterprises, but when it comes right down to it, they promulgate some of our most conservative values,” said Danielle Lindemann, a sociologist who wrote a book about reality television. “Ultimately, this show is about heterosexual coupling that ends in marriage.”
Success, and scrutiny
The inherent limits of the show have opened it to critique. Though “Love Is Blind” might be more diverse than some reality shows in terms of race and body type, those selected for the “experiment” tend to be conventionally attractive heterosexual men and women in their 20s and 30s.
Speed-Hamilton, who has gone on to co-host a podcast for Netflix about its reality series, accused the show last season of “cutting all the Black women” after the pods portion, adding that most of the couples seemed “forced” and only established “for entertainment purposes.”
There have been other musings that this season of the show is falling into typical reality TV traps, zooming in on “mean girl” drama and casting people whose true intentions some viewers question. There have also been suggestions that the show has edited footage to ramp up the drama. Jackelina Bonds, a dental assistant from this season, wrote on Instagram that footage had been reordered so that it appears she went on a date before she broke up with her fiancé, when in fact, the date was afterward.
Coelen said the production team works to portray the “accurate essence of each person’s journey.” He said the show focuses on building a diverse pool of participants from the start and chooses to follow the engagements that seem most genuine. Any “mean girl” behavior happened without their influence, he said.
One of the most vocal skeptics of the show’s authenticity has been a former contestant, Jeremy Hartwell, who was not closely followed during his season. He filed a class-action lawsuit last year against Netflix and Kinetic Content, saying that the defendants cut off the cast from the outside world, plied them with unlimited alcohol and withheld food and sleep with the objective of leading the cast to make “manipulated decisions for the benefit of the show’s entertainment value.”
The crux of the lawsuit was an objection to the show’s payment structure at the time, which, the complaint said, involved a $1,000 stipend per filming week with a maximum of $8,000 in possible earnings. His lawsuit argued that the participants had been “willfully misclassified” as independent contractors rather than as employees who were entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay and various labor protections.
Chantal McCoy Payton, a lawyer for Hartwell, declined to comment, citing the continuing litigation.
Lawyers for Kinetic Content, which has said that the claims are without merit, asserted in court documents that Hartwell had been part of the show for only six days and did not qualify as an employee. Netflix lawyers argued that Hartwell had brought forward “extreme allegations” because he was “upset” about not being chosen by another contestant.
Coelen declined to discuss the lawsuit, but his description of the show’s process was at odds with Hartwell’s claims.
Daters are provided meals and can order food to the pods, he said, and while the alcohol supply is ample (the fridge in the lounge is stocked with champagne, beer, wine and hard seltzer), everyone decides for themselves whether they want to drink. There are two psychologists on the set, he noted, and the show offers to cover postproduction therapy for participants.
Although the producers say they don’t interfere in relationships, Coelen, who is 54 and has been married for 16 years, said that they do suggest that the couples talk about important subjects like finances, parenting and religion, comparing the producers’ level of influence to Pre-Cana, a course for couples preparing to be married by the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, in Season 1, production team members encouraged one participant, Amber Pike, to tell her fiancé, Matt Barnett, that she had about $20,000 in student debt. The conversation did not go particularly well, but the pair got married anyway.
“We really get invested in these relationships,” said Simpson, 45, who has been married for six years.
Coelen has tried to sell similarly gimmicky dating shows before. In 2017, his production company released an American version of a show called “Kiss Bang Love” in which singles met each other by kissing blindfolded. In “The Spouse House,” 14 singles bent on marriage moved in together. Both shows lasted only one season.
With “Love Is Blind,” the numbers are starting to add up.From the first three seasons of the show, 17 couples came out of the pods engaged, six got legally married on the show, and four are still together.
In an interview last month, Brett Brown, a design director at Nike whose marital fate will be unveiled Friday, said it is those early successes that keep viewers watching, curious to find out if this bizarre dating formula can spit out happy couples.
Brown acknowledged that some participants might exaggerate their feelings in exchange for the global attention that comes with being a reality TV star.
But not him.
“I can only speak from my experience,” he said, “and I know that I was there for the right reason.”
Susan Beachy contributed research.