Like it or not, reality TV thrives on romance. It comes in all forms – the sexy, the mismatched, the painful and otherwise. But when we settle down to watch a couple of hours of this particular brand of telly, if it’s not talent-oriented (X Factor, Strictly, American Idol) then most of us are in it for the love stories that emerge.
There are the blatant contenders, like the applaudably garish Take Me Out and deliberately heartrending First Dates. Even looking at technically 'unscripted' lifestyle series like Made In Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex, it’s the hookups and fallouts that viewers remember. Since Love Island’s triumphant return to our screens in 2015, we’ve watched as others have tried to piggyback on the renewed success of orchestrating relationships between attractive strangers and putting it all on screen.
There was the arrival of First Dates Hotel, which allowed us to watch love-seekers mingle for a little bit longer than usual. BBC Three’s Hot Property, which let millennial singles snoop around their date’s house before meeting in real life. Even Netflix jumped on the bandwagon and launched its first original dating show, Dating Around, where one New Yorker goes on five first dates before selecting one to see again, in February of this year. But seeping between the cracks, between wildly gimmicky concepts (Naked Attraction, Flirty Dancing) and tired rehashes of familiar formats (Streetmate, Blind Date), another trend has started to emerge: the breakup show.
We were teased with the concept when MTV’s Ex On The Beach landed five years ago, a show that inexplicably sees a group of singles go on holiday together only to have their sexy fun times interrupted by the arrival of an ex-partner. It’s pre-planned drama for entertainment's sake at its best and worst. But now the case of the ex really seems to be gaining steam, as programmes attached to the demise of a relationship instead of its build-up are starting to make an impact. This year we’ve had Eating With My Ex, another BBC Three exploit that brings former couples together for an awkward dinner date and some accusatory questioning. It followed Netflix’s Back With The Ex, which threw its former lovers in deeper, forcing them to live together for a while. Again, it’s guaranteed emotional turmoil played out before our hungry little eyes.
At the beginning of September, ITV launched Singletown, a show that allows couples to put their relationship on hold for various reasons (some haven’t ever been with anyone else, some just aren’t down for commitment right now). It’s a similar vibe to E!’s Temptation Island, which will be back for another season in October. In the same vein, BBC Three gave us yet another millennial-focused relationship romp called Heartbreak Holiday, which gathers a group of wounded youths in a villa in Mykonos to help them get over whatever breakup they’ve just muddled through. Throwing some good-looking, recently single twentysomethings in a house makes for prime Love Island bed-hopping material but alas, it’s not meant to be about that.
What’s happened to us and what’s happened to our TV? Not many of us could argue with the pure, impenetrable joy of watching love blossom. We love romcoms and we love seeing them played out among real people even more. But perhaps we’ve become accustomed to expecting the relationships created on screen not to last. Can you remember watching one of those 'What Happened Next' clips at the end of your favourite dating show and the big reveal not being that Susan and Steveo didn’t go on another date? 3.8 million of us watched Amber Gill and Greg O’Shea win Love Island this year. I bet 3.799 million of us were not remotely surprised (if not secretly a little disappointed) to hear about their breakup weeks later.
Perhaps it’s because we know that despite the 'reality' pretence, these shows can only harness so much of our real-life experiences. We know that most (not all) successful relationships aren’t born out of ceremonial affirmations of lukewarm affection in a heavily surveilled house in the Mediterranean. We know that it’s hard to be your true self when you’ve got cameras and microphones stretching to pick up the echo of your snog with the person a producer introduced you to. We know that the line between falling for someone on reality TV and developing a crush in the real world is a really big one.
It makes sense, then, in the era of broadcasting the love lives of 'normal' people from a fairly intrusive 360-degree angle, that TV has started to mine the other side of the relationship journey. We’ve all dumped and been dumped, and there’s no denying our innate fascination with other people’s tragedy. It can’t help but feel cynical – a bit disgusting, even – but surely entertainment’s capitalisation on heartache was only a matter of time?
This year we’ve spent time toying with the tricky limbo between relationship statuses with shows that recruit struggling couples for sex therapy – Sex On The Couch, Sex Tape – and the team behind Catfish are about to deliver a show called Ghosted, which, yes, helps you track down people who have ghosted you. The streets aren’t safe and the narrative is truly wild, but it’s no wonder that we’re being increasingly lured away from the more traditional promise of Average Josephine's finding, falling and staying in love when, after the cameras stop rolling, we’ve got the internet to tell us that it didn’t work out.
It could mean we’re all tired of conventional love trajectories being played out on TV. We've seen so much of it now that it's only intermittently entertaining – especially when happily ever afters are so rare. Between flippant, app-based dating and the increasing number of people choosing to stay single, we might want entertainment that better reflects our messier relationship realities. Or it could mean that clever producers have caught on to the fact that the dating show market is pretty saturated and so flipping it on its head will likely revive their viewership. The culture of reality television already teeters along the line of uncomfortable, exploitative and untrustworthy at its very worst. Breakup TV is just another sub-category that piques our fascination with how other people's relationships do (and don't) work, because, apparently, so many of ours aren't working in the way TV once told us they should.