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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Pop CultureOctober 22, 2022

Here for the wrong reasons: Whatever happened to reality romance? 

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

We used to have rose ceremonies and twinkly dates, now we’ve got court charges and ‘fuckboys’. Alex Casey looks at our evolving relationship with reality romance.

This month, TVNZ’s big new dating series FBOY Island NZ was rocked by revelations that one of the contestants appeared in court on suffocation charges, and admitted to police that he had lured a drunk woman home with the intent of having sex with her. He was subsequently edited out of the show, echoing the 2019 scandal that saw Married at First Sight NZ groom Chris Mansfield removed from a season that still otherwise oozed with toxic, sexist goo. For a genre built on escapism, swooning and fairytale endings, local reality romance feels like it has never been on such shaky ground. What happened between us? When did the honeymoon end? 

It all began with Art and Matilda. For Rebecca Trelease, a lifelong reality fan who had recently begun her PhD on the evolution of the genre, the arrival of The Bachelor NZ in 2015 was a revelation. “I remember watching it and thinking ‘we could actually do this as a country, maybe this is going to be OK’,” she laughs. “It was just a really nice season: you saw friendships, you saw women deciding to leave, and then obviously Art and Matilda did amazingly well.” Their fairytale romance was so convincing, in fact, that she decided to get off the couch and apply for the next season of The Bachelor NZ herself. 

“It was just so exciting, because I really enjoyed watching these shows, and so the idea of actually being a part of it would be a dream come true.” 

Rebecca Trelease on The Bachelor NZ in 2016. (Photo: Three)

Prior to The Bachelor NZ, Aotearoa had an on-again-off-again relationship with dating shows. There was Blind Date in 1989, a matchmaking competition that saw the likes of a young Suzanne Paul request “someone who is well-built, with a well-built wallet as well”. Blind Date aired on TVNZ every weeknight 5.30pm, but only lasted a year on air compared to its decade-spanning counterpart in the UK. In 1999, one-season wonder Weddings followed real couples on their journey to the altar, including everyone from nudists to abstinent Christians. 

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that reality romance truly tore down its walls. The Bachelor premiered in the US in 2002 and saw one coiffed man dating 25 coiffed women with the goal of proposing to one of them after just six weeks. Our grubby attempt at copying their homework came in the form of The Player in 2004, in which 10 bachelors mooched around an Auckland apartment trying to woo anyone and anything. With dates featuring Bernadino and porno, and the series later unearthing a horrific sex tape scandal, The Player is now fondly remembered as “breathtakingly lecherous in both concept and execution”. 

For the next decade, it appeared audiences in Aotearoa decided to focus on other things and just weren’t ready for a relationship with reality romance. We produced a slew of local talent shows, game shows, cooking shows, top model hunts and basically anything involving Matthew Ridge and Marc Ellis, but it wasn’t until Art and Matilda that we were ready to let love in. 

There can’t be many people who know reality romance more intimately than Elan Gale. The LA-based producer began working behind the scenes on The Bachelor in 2010, where he would remain for nearly a decade. Speaking over Zoom from his office, he explains the endless appeal of dating shows. “I think that most people, and myself included here, when we talk about our relationships and our love lives, we talk about it like it’s the most important part of our lives.” 

Despite this, Gale says it is not something we have a lot of real life reference points for – for example, we can’t really ever closely watch two other people on a first date. “We watch movies, and we watch TV shows,” he says, “but how else are we going to learn how people communicate on first dates? We’re all just guessing.” 

Although Gale had a background in reality TV – he worked with rapper Coolio on both Coolio’s Rules and Cookin’ With Coolio – he admits to initially being sceptical about the “trite” world of dating shows. But in his work as a story producer on The Bachelor, he quickly became fascinated by people’s varied approaches to love. “If you ask enough questions, you’ll find something in every single person’s love story that you’ve never heard before. That’s what was really appealing to me.”

But something else made him fall completely head over heels. “For me, it was watching people actually fall in love. That was the thing. People fell in love, they really did.” 

Former Bachelor producer Elan Gale in 2018. (Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Closer to home, Trelease was open to finding love when she entered her season of The Bachelor NZ in 2016, which saw film and television producer Jordan Mauger handing out the roses. She particularly enjoyed spending time with the other contestants – “it was summer camp with really fun ladies and then sometimes we also had to be filming” – and even nabbed herself a single date in which she threw up in her mouth at Rainbow’s End. But after it was revealed that she had written a research paper about reality romance, Trelease was eliminated.

“Are you studying me? Are you studying the other girls?” Mauger asked conspiratorially at what would be her final cocktail party. “I watch movies and see romantic moments and want to experience that for myself,” Trelease replied. 

She maintains to this day that she was on the show for the right reasons, but that didn’t stop the many headlines about her true intentions and the social media backlash that followed. “I just loved the genre so much and I wanted to write about it and celebrate it,” Trelease says. “But then it hurt to write about and there was a lot of shame around my storyline, like I was a horrible person for doing it.” Years after the show aired, Trelease has only recently been able to enjoy dating shows again. “That was really sad in a way – the impact that had on me.” 

If Trelease had fallen out of love with the genre, the rest of us were still very much in the honeymoon phase. Despite revelations that Jordan Mauger flipped a coin to decide who would win The Bachelor NZ, the franchise returned in 2017 along with the first season of Married at First Sight NZ, which would say “I do” to two more walks down the aisle. The Bachelorette debuted in 2020 and returned in 2021, while we flirted with smaller dating debutantes such as First Dates NZ, Finding Aroha, Heartbreak Island and The Ex Best Thing. 

In her academic research, Trelease has always been interested in how the genre of reality television has adapted to stay fresh, which she says is something the 2020 season of The Bachelorette NZ did particularly well. “We’re really good at changing it up,” she says. “You’ve got the first two Bachelorettes ever, you’ve got Jodie Rimmer as the voiceover, even having Art and the boys with the GoPros really shifted it up.” She notes a rise in self-reflexive references and producer presence, not something that was permitted in the mansion back in 2016. 

The Bachelorette NZ was groundbreaking on multiple fronts. (Photo: TVNZ)

Humour has also become an essential part of many reality romance franchises, perhaps most prominently signalled by Iain Stirling’s sarcastic Scottish voiceover on Love Island UK. For Gale, who created tongue-in-cheek Bachelor spinoffs such as Bachelor in Paradise and Bachelor Pad, comedy has become an essential part of the genre. “We’ve not done a good enough job historically of poking fun at and enjoying the ridiculous nature of dating,” he says. “When I think about my life, and all the dating that I did, the stories I remember were always the funny ones.” 

Gale’s pursuit of comedy is clear in a memorable flourish from season one of Bachelor in Paradise, where tearful contestant Claire appears to seek council from a racoon. The producer says he has no qualms about toying with the truth, referencing the professional wrestling concept of kayfabe as a growing influence on the reality genre. “The idea of kayfabe is that it’s not about whether things are real or not, it’s about whether you’re enjoying them,” he explains. “We’re going to make editorial choices to give you a satisfying television show to watch. If you just wanted to watch real life, that’s available to you outside for free.”

Gale left The Bachelor franchise in 2019 to work on his own projects, which would eventually lead to his “most ridiculous” televisual offering yet: FBOY Island. The premise tasks three single women with deciphering which of the 20 single men are self-proclaimed “nice guys” and which are self-proclaimed “f-boys” (fuckboys, players, womanisers). When asked if he realises his show sounds like 30 Rock’s parody reality show MILF Island, he erupts in a hearty laugh of agreement. “One thousand percent. It totally does. I want to be super clear about something: I cannot believe this show exists. I can’t believe anyone let us make it.” 

The idea for FBOY Island, Gale says, was sparked by the eternal question that plagues reality show contestants and real life people alike – how do you know if someone is interested in you for the right reasons? “We put a lot of thought into the idea that many dating shows pretend that bad men don’t exist,” says Gale, who wanted the show to acknowledge that dating is a “fucking minefield” for women. “In real life, if you’re a heterosexual woman and you go on dates, guys are not going to tell you that they’re pieces of shit. They’re going to tell you that they’re nice.”

Is FBOY Island is making any kind of statement about the modern dating scene? “I wouldn’t say it’s a meaningful commentary because it’s a comedy show called ‘Fuck Boy Island’; we’re not doing the Lord’s work,” he says. “But I do think that people having, you know, shared language about ‘is this guy an f-boy or not’, is actually practically useful in life.” Endless thinkpieces have already been written about whether the show is feminist or unfeminist, good or bad, and Gale knows that a lot of people hate it. His view? “If anything, it’s kind of a devastating takedown of men.” 

FBOY Island premiered in the United States on HBO Max in 2021 and was immediately renewed for a second season. It is currently being adapted in United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and The Netherlands, and in June this year, after much teasing and mystery, TVNZ announced that FBOY Island NZ would be debuting on TVNZ+ in October 2022. The announcement was accompanied with a casting call seeking “outgoing sexy singles who are looking for an adventure of a lifetime and ready to play the game of love.” 

Aday after I spoke to Gale, and just over a week before the show was set to premiere, the NZ Herald broke the news that upcoming FBOY Island NZ contestant Wayde Moore had appeared in court after being charged with suffocating a woman, and had admitted to police that he hoped to take advantage of her because she was drunk. The woman at the centre of the incident spoke out against his casting, calling for TVNZ to drop the series entirely. “It doesn’t promote the changes we need to make,” she told the Herald. “It promotes negative sexual activity.”

The next day, TVNZ announced that Moore would be edited out of the series. “Following conversations with all parties, we have decided it is in the best interests of all involved to remove him as a contestant from the show and promotion,” a spokesperson said. 

For Project Gender, a social change agency that has done extensive research around dating and young people in Aotearoa, this response wasn’t good enough. “Thing is, I love a bit of trashy TV,” says Project Gender director Angela Meyer, “but this one had a much harder edge.” Soon after the controversy erupted, they published an open letter to TVNZ CEO Simon Power calling for the show to be pulled entirely. “Why? Because it normalises and champions predatory and dangerous sexual behaviour that harms people,” the letter reads. 

Reference their nationwide survey of 830 young people, Meyer’s concern is that the format promotes “damaging” ideas about dating. Their research found that 29% of young people who had been on dates in the past 12 months had been pressured into doing something sexual, and that 47% of those who had been choked/suffocated during sex said it happened without their consent at least once. “Young people have actually told us they’re finding it difficult to navigate this world, so maybe let’s not make it more difficult or more complicated for them,” she says. 

The first image we saw from FBOY Island NZ. (Photo: TVNZ)

As of writing, My Food Bag has pulled their advertising from the series and the letter from Project Gender has 6,870 signatures of support, including many from men. “Men are getting in touch and what they’re saying to us is, ‘we’re actually better than that, like, we don’t want these stereotyped ideas of guys. We are trying to have great relationships with women, and we don’t want this to be the thing that’s celebrated.’” Meyer met with TVNZ last week, and says they were “really open” to the critique and have invited Project Gender to be involved with future programming. 

So where does this leave FBOY Island NZ? Although it continues to stream on TVNZ+ and is broadcast free-to-air on TVNZ2, Trelease says the controversy will be a hard one to bounce back from. Other dating franchises such as Heartbreak Island have returned after public backlash, but this saga evokes another particularly poisoned chalice. “It reminds me a lot of what happened with Married at First Sight where they also had to have a contestant removed,” she says. “Obviously that franchise has continued everywhere else, but here in New Zealand, it couldn’t recover from that.” 

As for the future of reality romance more broadly, Trelease is still chasing the highs of the Art and Matilda. “I liked when Coco [on FBOY Island] said she was dubious about finding love on reality shows, but that she wanted to be proven wrong. That was a really useful statement to have, because it was a reminder that yes, finding love on these shows can be real!” But even as an avid reality fan, she’s unsure FBOY Island NZ will provide the happy ending she’s looking for. “I just don’t think I want to see these women be potentially dragged down by an f-boy,” she sighs. “I want better for them.” 

What Trelease would like to see is a return to more wholesome romance formats, citing observational dating shows such as First Dates NZ and Love on the Spectrum. “I think we want kinder reality television, especially with what the world’s gone through.” Because, if there is one thing that Trelease has learned from studying the genre, it is that reality television is always reflecting something back to us about ourselves – FBOY Island included. “It might reflect a part you might never have seen before, or a part of the world that you’re in already,” she says. 

“Unfortunately, FBOY Island has just shown us a really f’d up part of society.”

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