The stakes attached to dating shows in 2021 have reached giddy heights. Contestants now propose based on nothing but conversations through a wall, get married without ever having met, live together for weeks in a villa, knowing that the success of their relationship could determine the success of their future fame and fortune. It’s a lot.
How on earth do production companies compete with that? How do they move the genre on?
Enter Netflix’s latest offering: Sexy Beasts.
You can picture the brainstorm. A development producer pulls a piece of torn paper out of a pile on the boardroom table. The words scrawled across it in a Sharpie pen read: The Masked Singer. They pick up another one at random, it reads: First Dates. Ta-da! A new format is born. As someone who has worked in TV development for several years, I can confirm that this is quite seriously how new TV formats are devised. The industry would have us believe that it’s a lot more intellectual and complex but this Alan Partridge-esque method is tried and tested. It's worth mentioning that the 2021 iteration of Sexy Beasts is actually a reimagination of the less glossy BBC Three version from 2014 and predates the launch of The Masked Singer in the UK, but you get the idea. Regardless of how the production company got there in the first place, you can see why Netflix has brought it back.
It’s a fact that the industry is constantly striving to produce the next boundary-pushing, 'instantly gettable' format. Sexy Beasts is both of those things.
The concept is simple. As Netflix said in a statement: "Ready to say goodbye to superficial dating? Sexy Beasts is the dating show that takes looks completely out of the equation using fantastical, cutting-edge prosthetics to transform the daters – giving them a chance to find love purely based on personality."
However, upon watching Sexy Beasts, several flaws in the execution of the format become apparent very quickly. Firstly, there’s a lot more to physical attraction than just our faces – and it’s really only the face that is disguised by the Sexy Beast prosthetics. Secondly, underneath it all is a cast of people with...very nice faces. They are all conventionally attractive. And not just regular attractive. These are very. Attractive. People. Some of them are literal models.
An obvious comparison to Sexy Beasts is last year’s smash hit Love Is Blind. Jo Hemmings, behavioural and media psychologist and relationship coach, believes that Netflix’s previous offering was a more genuine test of attraction based on personality alone. She says: "In Love Is Blind, the cast had to rely on nothing but someone’s voice and character. Whereas, with Sexy Beasts, there are a lot of clues. You can’t see their face but there’s lots to go on that isn’t personality. You can see skin, body shape, clothing, mannerisms, posture. All of these things give lots away. I think it’s a good, fun show – but it’s not really doing what it says on the tin."
Something else that is glaringly at odds with the Sexy Beasts premise is that, for a show that promises to take the superficial out of attraction, it focuses a lot on the superficial.
"That rhino has a jawline to die for," jests Rob Delaney in the voiceover. There is an obscene amount of gun-flexing and constant speculation about what people might look like under the mask – with notably little attention paid to personality. For 'beaver', it’s very much a case of ass first, personality second.
Each episode sees one masked singleton whittle down three potential masked matches to one, choosing from devils, goblins, dolphins – you name it. Eventually the true appearance of each contestant is unveiled. When these reveals happen, importance is very much placed on how beautiful they are.
Jo thinks that this is inevitable. "When the masks come off, no matter how well you got on with them, the truth is that looks deeply matter. Chemistry cannot be there without some sort of physical appeal and attraction," she says.
However, in a show that purports to be all about personality, its very thesis is undermined by the lack of diversity in the cast.
One in five British people are disabled – a huge proportion of our society. Twenty-eight percent of adults in England are obese and a further 36% are overweight – that’s well over half the population. Sexy Beasts includes nobody that defies conventional beauty standards. Everyone is slim, able-bodied and openly proud of their good looks.
Surely a more interesting idea would have been to include a range of people who don't fit society's rigid and misguided ideals of conventional attractiveness. Jo thinks there could be a problem with this, however. "Once you make it solely about finding romance and love, you’ve got to have some semblance of parity between your contestants in the way that they look. Otherwise, it would just become a bit of a parody."
It might seem cruel to pair a supermodel type with someone who doesn’t necessarily feel 'in their league' but there's no reason why there couldn’t just be a diverse cast of people, matched equally. Shows like First Dates and Naked Attraction successfully do it all the time.
The other obvious omission is the complete lack of LGBTQ+ contestants. The whole thing is extremely heteronormative: the men talk about boobs and ass while the women pray for handsome men. Love Island recently controversially claimed that including LGBTQ+ contestants would be "logistically difficult" because of the show's format but the self-contained episodes of Sexy Beasts are set up perfectly for any combination of sexualities and genders, with the lead contestant making a final decision at the end of each 23-minute programme.
Herein lies another problem: time. Jo says: "Attraction to looks is very instant whereas attraction to personality takes longer to develop. In Sexy Beasts, you've thrown two facts in that don't combine very well. Someone you can't see and someone you can't get to know either – because it's too quick."
Sexy Beasts is a fun show. It will "put a smile on your face", as creator Simon Welton said he hoped it would in a statement to Variety. The prosthetics are great. The contestants are shallow. The reveals are fun. If we take it at face value, it is frivolous, lighthearted and a bit silly.
But it does feel like a missed opportunity to make something more meaningful. Television has the power to alter our perception of attractiveness, question beauty standards and normalise body diversity. Dating shows have just as much responsibility to do this as any other genre – especially one that claims to take looks out of the equation. Unfortunately, on this occasion, Sexy Beasts hasn’t risen to the challenge.
Maybe the only thing to do is watch, enjoy, not take it too seriously – and try not to be creeped out by the sight of a beaver (and self-proclaimed 'ass man') clumsily kissing a leopard.