I never, ever, in ten thousand years, would have ever thought that the following sentence would come out of my mouth: I truly enjoy the VH1 show Dating Naked: Playing for Keeps.
I’ve never eschewed reality shows outright, but I’ve never been their most vocal supporter, either. Like most people, I suppose, I thought that the reality shows that I preferred were superior, even as I was painfully aware that watching one group of people sit around pools and then get into fights wasn’t really very different than another group of people who also sat around pools and got into fights. I criticized the formulaic and trumped-up storylines, even as I had visceral reactions, be it laughter or disgust, to the elaborate farce. It was incredibly easy to form snap judgments - he is an awful person; she is way too insecure - from my vantage point of the opposite of the end of the screen, from the throne atop my own unquestionable moral fiber. As the viewer, you are always right - especially if you interject your perceptions of these strangers with the hearty assertion that reality television is so stupid, anyway. So fake!
Over time, I’ve accepted the fakeness. I no longer tune into shows like Real World: Explosion or Black Ink Crew expecting an hour of Emmy-worthy melodrama. I anticipate, and dare I say, relish, the over-wrought “plotlines”, the hysterical tears, the cocktail-fueled debauchery. This is entertainment at its basest level, and in many ways, admitting that I am watching utter nonsense makes the program that much more palatable.
In Roxane Gay’s collection of essays, Bad Feminist, she delves into the seductive hold that reality television has, particularly in regards to its typical depiction of women. Drawing from Kate Zambreno’s 2014 novel Green Girl, Gay draws frighteningly apt comparisons between the ‘green girls’ in the book - “learning how to perform her femininity, who is learning the power of it, the fragility” - and the ‘green girls’ we watch on shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians or America’s Next Top Model. She laments:
“Under the persistent glare of the camera, these women have little choice but to sacrifice themselves for our entertainment. The women of reality television are, perhaps, the greenest of girls, women who revel in watching themselves suffer because they have been so irrevocably interrupted they do not know what else they should do. We can’t look away. These women...look at their ruin. They are such garish, glorious spectacles.”
Dating Naked: Playing for Keeps is certainly a garish, glorious spectacle, but not in quite the way you’d expect.
In the first season, the premise was as simple as the title suggested: each episode, a different couple would go on a date, completely naked. I didn’t see the first season; I don’t even remember ever hearing about the show until this year. This season takes the old concept, but makes it a bit more complex. There are two leads, male and female, who go on a date with a different partner (of the opposite sex) three days a week. At the end of each week, the leads must choose to eliminate one of their previous partners based on who they felt the “weakest connection” with and choose their “Keeper”, a partner that would stay until the following week. In so doing, they would automatically eliminate the remaining partner in the house, by virtue of their being solidly mediocre in terms of a real, lasting relationship with the leads - which is, of course, why they’re all there: to find true, everlasting love.
If the majority of reality shows are guilty of exploiting the ‘green girls’, Dating Naked: Playing for Keeps evens out the playing field, in my opinion. Chris and Kerri are the show’s leads: they were the first to arrive on the island, and the only contestants to go on serial dates, just to turn around eliminate 66% of their potential soul mates. And of course, as the show’s title promises, they do all of this in the nude.
Maybe I’m just a product of my generation, completely desensitized to the astonishing level of sex and violence and profanity in media that would utterly scandalize someone from a different era. This is very likely. Or - and I recognize this will seem wildly improbable to a Baby Boomer who has never seen the show - Dating Naked: Playing for Keeps is simply not as raunchy as it sounds.
Yes, everyone is naked most of the time. Each new date commences with the camera’s ground-level view of each contestant stepping out of their clothing. We see Kerri or Chris standing in a scenic location, skin bared, nervous smiles pasted, as their date du jour walks toward them. Unless the person is unusually self-assured in the face of Kerri or Chris’ position as arbiter of their romantic fate, the first few seconds are always hilariously, nigh-unbearably awkward: ever-shifting eyes, hesitant hugs, oafish stammering. Chris and Kerri often try to relieve the tension by stating the obvious in the form of a question: “This your first naked date, huh?” or “So how are you feeling?” They are friendly, open, and, it would seem, genuinely interested in getting to know this naked stranger in front of them. I recognize that this is a role that they are playing, to some extent: the cameras are rolling, they are expecting a paycheck. But the real magic of Dating Naked: Playing for Keeps isn’t the nudity gimmick; it is the wide spectrum of humanity that is revealed.
During the ritual disrobing and the walk towards one of the hosts, the music always hints at the kind of person this date will be: off-tempo, clunky notes for the ‘weird’ ones; flowing, melodic riffs for the ‘normal’ ones. The distinction is obvious, and probably demeaning, but it certainly breaks up the monotony in a very judicial way: there is no favoring of the women over the men, or vice versa. While there is definitely a predominant body type - no question that this show attracts people who feel damn good about their appearance - there are some who stray from the expected norm, and are not immediately discounted for that from the outset by the show’s musical cues. Chris and Kerri are both white, but they have their fair share of dates with people of color, some of which bomb, some of which go pretty well. So despite the occasional contestant who either purposely or inadvertently serves as that week’s kooky outlier, the rampant nakedness doesn’t feel exploitative or even salacious (thankfully, the producers have gotten their act together since season one). Everyone is exposed to each other, everyone is vulnerable, and it is their choice how they decide to interact, how often or to what degree they allow their bared genitals to carry the plot.
The plot, indeed. The opening song lasts a mere few seconds - a trilling female voice over a bubble-gum pop beat: When I met you, I saw everything / I know you now! Eric and I burst into incredulous laughter the first time we heard it. Because how apt, right? A whole bunch of strangers, going on dates, all in the fevered hopes of finding that spark, establishing that connection (easily the most over-used word on the show), falling in love and being together forever. Participating in activities that range from mundane yet vaguely dangerous (rollerblading down a steep path) to unconscionably bizarre (creating papier-mache molds from each other’s buttocks - definitively unsexy). And, of course, doing all of these things, all of the strained, halting conversation and walks along hot sand and treacherous rocks, sitting and standing and running and squatting, naked as the day you were born. Adam and Eve themselves preferred clothes, and it wasn’t like there were many other options, relationship-wise. No one with whom to compare their pink parts. Arguably, the best scenes of the show occur when Kerri and Chris return to the house with their dates to join the rest of the contestants. Imagine walking into a room after a wonderful date with a cute girl and seeing the other two guys she dated that week. And they’re naked. And you’re naked! And there are some other women that her co-host has dated, and they’re naked too! Everyone is introduced, and everyone is furtively glancing at everyone’s junk. It’s either genius, or it’s reality television well on the way to eating its own tail.
Perhaps I’ve been willingly duped for so long that now I am just blind to the lie. But there is something about this show that seems - if not real, then decidedly less absurd than the average “looking for love” show. Kerri and Chris, the hosts, do an excellent job of appearing - or, perhaps, being - totally human. They are not caricatures; neither of them seem to be gunning for their own spin-off. They are people you’ve met a thousand times. Chris (I call him Brad, because that should have been his name) is the lovable, blithely handsome, frustratingly dopey jock with a heart of gold and an arsenal of unfunny quips he finds absolutely hilarious. He has the sort of immaturely earnest, golden retriever personality that makes you want to roll your eyes and go “aw, shucks” at the same time. Kerri, on the other hand, is your pretty and wholesome second grade teacher. No nonsense, self-aware, literally enjoys long walks on the beach and monogamy (outside of the show, of course). Kerri will enjoy a drink or three, but probably draws the line at one hit of weed. Kerri craves stability and commitment. In other words, Kerri does not strike the viewer as the kind of woman who would appear on a naked dating show - and yet, here she is, unflinching in her search for the ideal man, even going so far as to send all of her options home when she felt none of them were right for her that week.
This subversion of typical reality television tropes is what, in my mind, makes Dating Naked: Playing for Keeps a breath of fresh island air. Have I been completely suckered in? Am I simply another mindless couch zombie, shamelessly mistaking degrading swill for meaningful content?
Mmm, perhaps. But I’ll be damned if I’m missing this season’s finale!