Reviews

Too Real for Reality Dating: 'Coupled' - Season 1

Mark W. Pleiss

Crystal blue waters, colorful drinks, and attractive bodies abound, but Coupled also delivers content that goes beyond the stock characters, conventions, and situations of other dating shows.


Coupled

Airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm
Cast: Terrence Jenkins, Alyssa Reeves, Terecia Baker
Network: Fox
Amazon

Mistakenly or not, Coupled forges an insightful look into the dating habits of late-aged millennials

September audiences looking to relive the hot months of summer will find a surprising treat in "Coupled", Fox’s reality dating series that finished in early August. The show was cancelled after its first season because it didn’t resonate with a target number of viewers, but it wasn't for a lack of quality cinematography, characters, or content.

In short: the show was too real.

"Coupled" adopts the easily recognizable genre of a reality dating show, as its commercials promise a show for viewers looking for the entrancing escapism of love, lust, and libidinal competition. Its promotional images also feature a series of attractive women in sundresses sending and receiving text messages on the beach, a clear message to audiences that the show is young, hip, and in-synch with younger generations.

And in many ways, the show did what it promised.

Crystal blue waters, colorful drinks, and attractive bodies abound and provide all the usual fodder for cooing and swooning, but the show -- mistakenly or not -- also delivers content that goes beyond the stock characters, conventions, and situations of dating shows like The Bachelor. Instead, "Coupled" forges an insightful look into the dating habits of late-aged millennials by tapping into the rituals, conflicts, and desires of men and women in their late 20s and early 30s.

On the surface, however, "Coupled" looks like most dating shows. The program follows a format in which a dozen attractive women live together in a bungalow on the pristine beaches of Anguilla. Strapping suitors arrive one by one vis-a-vis helicopter and boat to meet the women individually, and then the ladies decide to return to the bungalows or continue their conversation with their suitor at the tiki bar.

From there, the male chooses two finalists, and he must eventually choose one after subsequent nights out. After choosing his mate, the two are coupled, and they live with the six other couples in a shared beachside condominium.

The show primarily focalizes the thoughts and emotions of the female characters, per the genre norm, but it also emphasizes safety and adult behavior. Alcohol and physical intimacy are present, but "Coupled" never veers into the tasteless drinking and promiscuity of similar reality programs.

This is due in part to the age and maturity of the individuals on "Coupled", who each show themselves to be experienced daters and mindful people.

Further, the characters are not caricatures of masculinity and femininity -- as is common in this genre and similar ones -- and are instead rational, complex beings seeking a mate rather than cheesy, idyllic notions of true love.

This is perhaps the greatest flaw of Fox's program: reality dating shows must be silly and ridiculous. It's a genre that demands artificial feelings of heartbreak and satisfaction, because the distresses and anxieties of real dating are neither pleasurable nor appealing for a mass audience. However, if one's willing to pursue what the genre can be -- not what it should be -- he or she will find a show with real tensions and dilemmas that are either mitigated, overcome, or simply ended.

The first couple, Lindsay and Alex, are a good example. The two show physical and emotional chemistry throughout their time together, but Lindsay’s several years older than Alex, which is a concern she repeatedly shares with her friends. Moreover, Alex is a self-proclaimed rock star who is no stranger to late nights and groupies, which makes her wonder about his loyalty down the road.

A weaker or more artificial female character would’ve looked past these negative elements, ignored them, and waited until their relationship burned out. Instead, Lindsay repeatedly confronts this issue with Alex because she knows this is one of the problems that can wreck a relationship.

Also, both characters seem unsure whether their romance is strictly something that works on Anguilla, or if they'll be able to adapt to life together outside paradise. Both characters understand that their time on the show is temporary and that their “couplehood” will be strained once they leave. The uncertainty of life after the island plagues the most compelling moments of their time together, and it speaks to the vision of two individuals who are looking for real mates but are careful not to risk heartbreak or their individualism.

The couple Ashley and B. T. present the most difficult situation between two individuals in their early 30s. Ashley's a calm, traditional woman who seems to find security and heart in her new mate, B. T., a tall, strapping romance novelist and Iraq War veteran. B. T. even reveals a secret to Ashley early in their courtship when he shows her his prosthetic leg -- the result of his service during the war. Ashley isn't turned away by his revelation and soon tells her own secret: she's a virgin and plans to stay that way until marriage.

The two seem to be on a path toward happiness until B. T. begins to show symptoms of anxiety and depression from the war. He isolates himself from Ashley and lashes out at her when she tries to connect with him. The two make up after the first time B.T. becomes overwhelmed by his illness, but the second time Ashley realizes that the event is and will be recurring.

It's clear she cares deeply for B. T., but she knows that a future with him will be one of uncertainty, heartbreak, and the possibility of aggression. She doesn't want to hurt him, especially in his vulnerable position, but she also understands that this isn’t the time in his life for a serious relationship. Her decision is neither quick nor reactionary, and it's one that tries to show love and respect for both her mate and herself.

The couple T.T. and Brandon face a less powerful but no less real conflict between late-aged millennials. T. T. is a short, cute theme park princess, and Brandon is a tall, handsome ex-professional basketball player. The two clearly share many common interests and have noticeable chemistry, but their connection often short circuits. T. T. seems to bait Brandon into arguments, and the two enter into intense disagreements that demand time apart.

Brandon does shine at speaking his emotions. He clearly articulates his points of view, and he succeeds in repeatedly mending things with T. T. The pressing question in their relationship down the road, however, is whether he'll get tired of needing to constantly repair their relationship, or if he'll seek out someone with whom things will simply be easier.

Finally, there's Ben and Alex. Ben’s a tech-engineer from Chicago, and Alex, a bubbly southern girl who's the only character who seems more like a caricature of a girl on a dating show than a real person. The two begin dating on physical chemistry alone, but when Alex reveals she's very republican and very religious, the non-religious, progressive-minded Ben runs for the hills.

Ben then meets Lisa, an attractive real estate agent from New York, but things grow tense when Ben's father comes on a surprise visit to the island. Dad sees the same thing in Lisa he saw in Ben's other girlfriends: she's young, attractive, but she "does not contribute anything". To stay with Lisa would mean to follow his heart, ignore his father, and make a decision that will likely lead him to another intense but potentially ephemeral relationship.

Trauma from war, divergent political and religious affiliations, a lack of emotional understanding, and tensions with family define the couples of "Coupled", and they offer glimpses into the desires, dating habits, and interpersonal relationships of a specific generation of young adults. All these combine to make the show a unique contribution to a genre of reality television that lacks any semblance of reality. Sadly, it's one that will likely never appear again.

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