Barak is anxious about the size of his penis. Lauren, his partner on Naked and Afraid of Love—a reality show about single people trying to find love while also fighting for survival in the tropics—reassures him that it’s okay. “I have a massive vagina,” Lauren, jokes. “Like I don’t wanna brag, but it is.” The frank conversation feels refreshing, especially in the highly artificial world of reality television dating. Maybe there’s something to be said about the originality of the show: When denuded and forced to fend with a partner who is a virtual stranger, there might really be a chance at an actual connection.
Dating shows over the years have necessarily evolved, but at the heart of every iteration, the goal remains the same: to find love from the curated pool of strangers handpicked by producers and casting agents, in an environment that is a bland simulacrum of real-life situations. The Bachelor franchise, the longest-running dating show on television, puts its contestants in a neutered version of reality, treating the games and the cocktail hours as a suitable environment for forming a connection. While this formula worked for a while, other, newer iterations on the dusty blueprint left by The Bachelor sprung up to join the crowd.
In MTV’s Are You The One?, 11 singles descend upon a beautiful resort in search of their “perfect match” as designated by a matchmaker; at the end of each week, there’s a ceremony where the contestants pair up and a series of lights projected into the sky reveals how many successful matches they’ve made. If the entire cast succeeds at finding their perfect match, they split a $1 million dollar prize. Love Island is like a long-winded season of Bachelor in Paradise with a dedicated fanbase who delights in the show’s details, like the water bottles, the mic packs, and the baffling array of fast-fashion bikinis worn by the cast. Love Is Blind hid its contestants from each other for a short while, assuring its viewership that this method would lead to true connection based on personality; Sexy Beasts took this one step further and dressed its contestants in animal costumes. Naked and Afraid of Love is a refreshing entry to the genre, because when you strip away creature comforts and force strangers to survive using only their wits, the chances are that the truth about what anyone really, truly wants in a relationship will come to light.
“Naked and Afraid, even the survival one, is even a little bit of a microcosm of our relationships and the male-female dynamic,” said executive producer Joseph Boyle, who has been with the series since the beginning and is now a producer on its dating iteration. “If you strip away everything, the apps, the games, the nonsense, and put people in a situation where they have to be together and work together and survive together, can they actually make deeper and more meaningful connections and can they come out of that experience with true love?”
It’s a question worth asking, though arguably, any question of this nature needs willing participants who are entering the game with clear eyes, open hearts, and the comfort (and confidence) required to be butt-ass naked. Luckily, the contestants on Naked and Afraid of Love are all the correct combination of earnest and open to make this conceit work. Of particular interest to me are David and Rachel, a couple that seems well-matched on paper, but whose nascent relationship quickly curdles after the first night or so. David is a self-described “Peter Pan” who loves surfing, his mother, and his coiffure, which is an artfully arranged swoop of sun-bleached blonde. Rachel, who lives in Hawaii, is adjacent to the beach bum lifestyle David loves, but finds herself quickly doing everything for her partner, as he relies on her for even his smallest needs.
Luckily, Rachel and David do not have to stay together for the entire show; every couple that is paired up in the beginning eventually has to move camp, because the small space they share doesn’t have the adequate resources for their survival. That means that there is a new chance for a more organic connection as each small tribe finds one another. The setting and the task at hand—survival first and love second—make it easy for the players to find moments of time to get to know each other. Unlike the forced “dates” on other shows of its ilk, the cast members of Naked and Afraid of Love are literally fending for themselves, and so can pair off into new couplings to do things like find wood for a fire, search for water, and, maybe, make out. Though the situation they’ve found themselves in is not anything close to real life, the practical nature of these proceedings might result in success.
Any love that is long-lasting is essentially an exercise in survival; to choose to spend your life with another person and accommodating their needs as they change over time in accordance with yours is not for the brave. Finding and sustaining that kind of relationship in normal circumstances is difficult enough, and the trappings and attendant anxiety of simply being alive can make the process even more difficult. Though it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that love would be at the top of anyone’s mind if they found themselves naked and stranded on a desert island with survival at top of mind, according to Boyle, the setting only enhanced the experience by making it a little easier.
“Everyone was there to try to figure out what love was to them without all of the modern nonsense,” Boyle said. “I think we gave them a really special experience.”