Reality show producers sometimes wrap their shows in more meaningful cloth by calling them “social experiments.” That’s been the case with programs ranging from “Survivor” and “Big Brother” to “Naked and Afraid” and “Alone.”
Now Netflix is combining elements of “Married at First Sight,” “The Dating Game” and “The Bachelor” for a new “social experiment”-style reality program called “Love is Blind.”
The concept is simple: 30 Atlanta singles in their 20s and 30s gathered at a huge Pinewood Studios soundstage, split by gender, in October 2018. They had “dates” in two adjoining pods where they can talk but are separated by a wall so they cannot see each other.
The hope is men and women would fall in love sight unseen and get engaged. Only then do they actually meet each other in person.
"There's something to be said about building a foundation of emotional connection before adding a layer of physical connection," said Vanessa Lachey, co-host with her husband Nick.
In fact, that’s the opposite of how most people first connect and what most dating apps use as lures: profile pics.
“Those sites rely on the superficiality of looks,” Nick said. “People have so many more layers than a picture.”
Chris Coelen, CEO of the show's production company Kinetic Content who came up with the concept, said he wanted to put them in an environment with no access to the outside world, where they didn't have to focus on "looks or race or age or background or social status, just who you are as a human being. What matters is what's on the inside."
Many of these folks, he said, would never even consider dating outside their race or religion or age range - yet they fell in love anyway.
Netflix, which typically releases an entire season of a show at once, chose to spread this one out over three weeks in hopes of generating more social media buzz.
The first five episodes debuting on Thursday, Feb. 13 focus on courtship and a trip to Cancun once engaged couples meet face to face. The next four episodes out Feb. 20 will show the couples out in the “real world” over a span of a month. The final two-hour episode Feb. 27 will feature any possible weddings culminating from the 36-day experiment.
But what if the show ended up with zero love connections? Would that mean no show?
"It was a risk,"Coelen admitted."We didn't tell any of the people what to say or do. That's scary as a producer."
Fortunately, the "Love is Blind" casting experts did a good job - apparently, too good of a job. After ten days, they had more couples engaged than they could keep track of.
“It blew my mind,” Coelen said. “It blew everyone’s mind.”
In the end, they chose six pairings to highlight.
Atlanta's Mark Anthony Cuevas, a personal fitness instructor in Buckhead who grew up in Douglasville, is one of those featured. At that point, he had had two serious relationships and been single for 10 months.
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” Mark said in an interview.
On day one, he went through a speed-dating process: speaking with each of the 15 ladies for seven minutes apiece. He was given a notebook to jot impressions. He focused his initial questions on two topics near and dear to his heart: faith and family.
He actually found the process less stressful compared to usual first dates.
“No preconceived notions,” Mark said. “I’m not worried about how I look. I’m just being myself. I’m just worried about whether we have a connection. That is so freeing.” .
Jessica Batten was his third date and he was instantly smitten. They were both from Chicago and he loved her voice. The next 12 dates didn't even matter to him. He was immediately focused on one woman.
Jessica, on the other hand, was attracted to both Mark and another man named Barnett, who in turn had a mutual thing for three women.
“Barnett and I were roommates,” Mark said. “It was funny. I wasn’t mad at him. I just kept telling him, ‘Dude! You’ve got to figure out what you want! All you’re doing is messing my vibe up!’” (Barnett would eventually choose another woman to get engaged with.)
Like actual blind people, he said the exercise forced him to focus on vocal inflections and even the breathing of the other person. As a result, he said he listened better.
Mark and Jessica had an emotional charge from the get go but Jessica had a difficult time getting past one hurdle: the age difference. Mark was 24 at the time and she was 34. At that point in their lives, that’s a big gap.
But like a good hopeless romantic, Mark was nothing if not passionate for his cause. And he often acted and sounded older than his age.
“I’ve always been introspective,” Mark said. “I’ve wanted to learn about myself and get better.”
With persistence, Mark was eventually able to convince Jessica to take a chance with him and get engaged.
And when he saw Jessica in the flesh, he was blown away. “I couldn’t stop saying ‘Wow!’” he said. “I had no doubt I made the right decision.”
Unfortunately, the feeling was not mutual. He’s a good-looking man but in episode five, she said she couldn’t get into him physically and watching happier couples around her made it worse.
Sixteen months later, for the sake of the show, Mark can’t say if his relationship with Jessica is still kicking. But when asked what she did for a living, his response was a little hesitant. “She works in technology,” he said . “Regional manager, I think?”
Either way, he said the “Love is Blind” experience made him a “better person and communicator. I gave it all I got. I have zero regrets.”
He said he has learned to accept people “for who they are, not who they could be. In the past, I used to want to fix things. That doesn’t really work long term.”
“Love is Blind,” first five episodes available Thursday, Feb. 13 for Netflix subscribers; four more will be released Feb. 20 and the finale on Feb. 27
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.