When MTV debuted the dating game show Singled Out in 1995, it changed the way American teens thought about dating. The Dating Game it was not: shallow, aggressive and full of male braggadocio, Singled Out was more in line with “reality” than romance. The Real World hard already whetted the network’s appetite for hot young singles getting it on and audiences were ready for more.
What followed would become an MTV signature: scripted dating shows that favored hot (often shirtless, fit and on Spring Break) 20-somethings look for the someone to screw, not marry. The clever set ups — blind dates in bedrooms, blind dates in vans, blind dates with parents — kept generations of teens glued to the channel, much in the same way music videos had the decade prior. And the effects of it can be seen in much of modern culture, especially technology, with apps like Tinder and OkCupid like a real-world versions of Next or Singled Out. Here now, a look back at MTV’s dating game shows in all their crass, sexy, and slutty glory.
Three years after The Real World and The Grind kicked off MTV’s transition from music video network to reality TV powerhouse, Singled Out helped to define the aggressive, girls gone wild attitude its ’90s core audience. The show, an edgy spin on the then dating show standard The Dating Game was hosted by Chris Hardwick and Jenny McCarthy and featured a single guy or a single girl weeding out a crowd of horny hotties by choosing a series of attributes (hair color, body type, “package size”) and asking erotically tinged questions. Even in these early reality days, MTV understood that people would do and say anything to get on TV—and on Singled Out they did. In fact, the atmosphere on the show was so wild, McCarthy accused MTV of purposely harboring a sexist environment. Singled Out is also notable for featuring gay and lesbian contestants, a rarity at the time, but something they would continue on almost all of their future dating shows.
The Blame Game
This courtroom-style show focused on the break-up, not the courtship, of a couple, with the guy and the girl each getting a “lawyer” to help them argue their case. At the end of the episode the audience would vote on who was not at fault for the break-up and award them a vacation prize. Though the hosts’ casual vibe and the set’s funky design were clearly descendants from Singled Out, The Blame Game’s argumentative style seemed more inspired by the immensely-popular-at-the-time, The Jerry Springer Show.
At the turn of the last century, MTV went through a major renovation spearheaded by its Time Square-set behemoth Total Request Live. This period also saw a new type of MTV dating show. Taking the lessons they learned from Singled Out (people will do anything to get on TV) MTV tried responding to the growing popularity of syndicated dating shows like Blind Date and the runaway success of reality competition Survivor. DisMissed was the network’s first attempt to merge the old and the new, taking the dating show out of the studio and into the “real world.” The highly structured (and most likely partially scripted) show followed one contestant on a date with two singles. After the date, the contestant would dismiss one single and go on a date with the other.
Despite its romantic framing, the show focused more on the competition aspects of “winning” (being chosen for the date) much more than a romantic match and often simplified its contestants into a series of flirtatious bullet points. It’s a structure that would set a precedent for the next decade on MTV and popular syndicated dating series like ElimiDate.
After DisMissed, MTV began producing a wide slate of reality dating competition shows. One of the first was Taildaters, a reality show that followed a first date plus commentary from each of the daters’ best friends. The best friends would follow the date from a van, the first time a vehicle would be introduced to the MTV dating show formula, something most likely copied from another syndicated dating show, Blind Date spin-off The Fifth Wheel, and soon to be omnipresent on all MTV dating shows.
MTV continued its experiment in reality dating competition show with Room Raiders. Abandoning the tradition “date” element of previous dating shows, Room Raiders had the single girl or guy essentially date the different contestants’ homes, allowing them to go through drawers, look under beds, and use a ultraviolet wands to identify suspicious bed stains. The show was a big hit and helped push the network further towards reality programing ubiquity. It was also the beginning of another experiment: just how much could MTV script shows they labeled “reality?” The answer, quite a bit.
Ryan Cabrera (remember him?) hosted this dating competition show that attempted to honor MTV’s music roots. Contestants worked with Cabrera, a heartthrob musician at the time, to write a hit song for a hot girl they are both trying to win a date with. The contestant with the song that impressed the girl most won the date. The show lasted two seasons, but the slightly more sincere formula — and likely high production values — proved a dead end for the network.
Wanna Come In?
Though now mostly forgotten, this dating show lasted three seasons and continued the network’s experimentation with traditional dating show formulas. On Wanna Come In? two loser-in-love guys were paired with self-described Romeos who would coach them through a date with a girl and the chance to be “invited in.” The clearly scripted formula, possibly inspired by then Bravo hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, might not be as fondly remembered as some other shows on this list, but it hit on themes that would be major reality successes later on dating shows like The Pick-up Artist and Beauty and the Geek.
Date My Mom
With Room Raiders a certifiable hit, MTV tweaked the formula for their next real hit: Date My Mom. But instead of the contestant dating each single’s room, they would date their mother. The show featured lots of MTV’s now signature scripted punch lines, but the attractive contestants and the wild card element of the moms helped prove viewers didn’t care about the authenticity of their reality programming. Laguna Beach and The Hills quickly followed.
By the mid ’00s Total Request Live was the centerpiece of MTV’s programming, and the pre-and post TRL shows had become their prime time-esque line up, one dominated by dating shows. Having perfected their formula by this point, the network launched Next. A combination of the best MTV dating show elements so far, it was an obviously scripted, hook-up heavy, all-or-nothing competition show that followed a bus full of contestants attempting to last till the end of the show’s half hour date without hearing the dismissal “Next!” If a contestant lasted till the end of the show they could choose to go on another date or earn a dollar for every minute they spent together. The show prided itself on caricatures and silly, sex-forward dialogue that helped it last for six big seasons.
With Date My Mom a major part of the cultural conversation, MTV continued along the same lines with Parental Control. Parents who disapproved of their child’s current boyfriend or girlfriend would set their son or daughter up with two alternatives. At the end of the dates, the contestant could choose to stay in their current relationship or start something with one of the blind dates. Again, awkward parents saying silly, often crude scripted lines —and bickering with the current boyfriend or girlfriend — proved to be a hit with the audience and Parental Control lasted for almost twice as many seasons at Date My Mom.
2006 (MTV UK)
Though this MTV dating show only aired on British TV, it is worth noting for its truly absurd premise: a contestant is forced to choose from six potential singles in a dark room where the only way to tell them apart is by touch, smell, and taste. Every episode features only two “studs”, with the rest of the options “duds” cast for their reveal factor. If you were the single chosen, you would win £1,000. It is unclear why the show never came to the US, though its graphic and somewhat offensive nature might have been too much for American audiences – despite evidence to the contrary on this list.
A combination of Taildaters and Next, Exposed followed a contestant on a date with two singles while a friend was trailing them in a van with lie detector-esque “voice analysis software.” The friend would keep track of the single’s truthfulness and help the contestant pick a winner. The show lasted for one season, its derivative nature evidence of cracks in MTV’s once dominant dating show factory.
A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila
By 2007, ABC’s The Bachelor was a major network hit and VH1 had successfully put their own stamp on The Bachelor‘s formula with Flavor of Love. So, with their current dating line up faltering, MTV gave the celeb genre a stab. It had bisexual Internet personality Tila Tequila chose from a house full of guys and girls. (Shocker: she chose a guy.) The show was a massive success, often winning its cable time slot, and inspired a slew of spin-offs including That’s Amore (2008) and A Double Shot at Love (2008-2009).
When Spicy Meets Sweet
This interstitial series, a integrated marketing promotion for Doritos, aired during network’s commercials and used MTV’s now standard dating show formula to promote the snack food, with “sweet” guys choosing from a group of “spicy” girls in each segment. Is this where BuzzFeed learned their advertising strategy?
This hidden-camera show has more to do with Punk’d than dating competition shows. In each episode, singles are set up on fake dates by friends who are sick and tired of their relationship habits. Like on Next, if the unknowing single made it to the end of the obnoxious date, they would win money. Disaster Date, as well as the similar Is She Really Going Out With Him? (2009-2010), may have been an attempt by MTV to move away from the dating competition show and into more documentary-style reality programing with a dating bent while saving a few of the game-show elements.
By the start of the last decade, MTV had pretty much abandoned silly, scripted game shows for semi-serious teen trainwrecks like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore. It is in that vain that Catfish, a much debated documentary film, found new life as a TV show. While not a competition show by any traditional definition, Catfish contained elements that recall MTV’s dating show legacy: namely that each episode features a subject finding out whether or not the person they’ve been talking to online is who they say they are (and, possibly, some scripting). It is that show’s central will-they-or-won’t-they mystery that links it to every dating show that came before it, only this time the screen behind which the dates hide isn’t on a TV set, it’s on Facebook.
The Hook Up
Obviously inspired by the success of Catfish, the newest MTV dating show premiered earlier this fall and follows a contestant as they sift through potential singles’ online profiles. The Hook Up takes the MTV dating show full circle, with its in-studio set-up and its round-by-round elimination similar to the classic Singled Out. In fact the show is the closest thing to The Dating Game MTV has ever done, right down the the screen that divides the contestants.
Only time will tell if The Hook Up will reignite MTV’s interest in dating game shows or if the formula is gone forever. But if this recent Saturday Night Live skit is any indication, our love for them won’t be dying anytime soon.
Benjamin Solomon is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was most recently the Editor-in-Chief of Next Magazine. He has contributed to Vanity Fair, Playbill, Details, Out Magazine, Time Out New York, Today.com and has appeared on Biography Channel, East Village Radio and in Wallpaper magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @benjaminsolomon.