Full-frontal nudity, blind-date weddings … has reality TV broken every possible taboo?

Yomi Adegoke

Series such as Naked Attraction and Married at First Sight would have been shocking once upon a time. But these days it takes a lot more to leave viewers aghast

‘Weddings which take place in part for our titillation’ ... Michelle and Owen in Married at First Sight.
‘Weddings which take place in part for our titillation’ ... Michelle and Owen in Married at First Sight. Photograph: Indigo Wild Studio - Simon Johns/Channel 4 / Simon Johns
‘Weddings which take place in part for our titillation’ ... Michelle and Owen in Married at First Sight. Photograph: Indigo Wild Studio - Simon Johns/Channel 4 / Simon Johns

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 08.11 EST

Once upon a time, Big Brother administering electric jolts to the bums of unsuspecting housemates was the most shocking thing (literally) I’d seen on reality TV. But I’ve callused over the years, having now seen it all – the conveyor belt of fist fights, the cheating scandals ripped from the same script, the endless wine glasses emptied over yet another love rat.

In fact, with reality series now among television’s most popular genres, I wonder if any of us are truly shocked by what the genre offers any more. Channel 4’s Naked Attraction would have belonged on a pay per view adult channel a decade ago – now, my mum doesn’t even clutch her pearls when it’s on. The same can be said of Sex Box, which saw real life couples have sex in a Perspex box and talk about it afterwards (the box wasn’t transparent, but with the right framing, it’s hard to say if any of us would muster a gasp). In the US, Love after Lockup chronicles couples as they finally meet their jailed fiances upon release from prison (I haven’t felt compelled to tune in).

When I concluded Channel 4’s Married at First Sight a fortnight ago with a “meh”, it struck me just how nonchalant I have become about scandalous viewing. I am entirely acclimatised to this crazy world in which lawful marriages take place in part for our titillation, watching with the same lighthearted preoccupation I would give to Bake Off or First Dates. Worse still, I not only find it normal but, at times, humdrum. This year’s series of Married at First Sight Australia marked the first time I’d felt alive since Love Is Blind, with its outrageous revelation of an affair between two participants married to other people. But what does it say about the increasingly escalating entertainment stakes, that the moment I realised the marriages weren’t binding (the Australian Marriage Act orders couples to notify the court one month and one day before a wedding), I felt robbed rather than relieved?

Legally binding reality TV marriages – and the inevitable divorces that follow – have been dangled as an immediate ratings grab for years now: what was once considered an affront to the sanctity of marriage is now a standard plot device. Aside from Married at First Sight, there is Love Is blind, which saw dumpings take placeat the altar (the jilting admittedly added a certain je ne sais quoi). TLC’s The Spouse House had contestants move into a mansion with the sole intention of leaving with a husband or wife. A series of The Bachelor ending in engagement is pretty standard at this point, while Australia’s The Farmer Wants a Wife sees agriculturalists presented with a number of women, from whom they ultimately choose a spouse. A lot of these partnerships end in divorce, but given that 42% of marriages in England and Wales do anyway, that conclusion isn’t as much shocking as it is inevitable.

The US series Labor Of Love, which saw a a contestant “win” a segment for having the highest sperm count.
The US series Labor Of Love, which saw a a contestant “win” a segment for having the highest sperm count. Photograph: FOX/FOX Image Collection/Getty Images

With televised arranged marriages no longer considered that remarkable, it raises the question: what is? Are there any taboos left in reality TV to break? Will we ever be shocked again? To be left truly aghast, you’d probably have to go back in time, to the 2000s. In 2007, Kid Nation – a televised Lord of the Flies – saw unsupervised children fend for themselves. The best-forgotten Black.White. saw a black family and a white family trade lives – the white family donning blackface to do so. None of those shows could air nowadays and thankfully so; times have changed, and they were frankly heinous at the time; 2004’s The Swan was a show where Plain Jane contestants went under the knife, in the hope of winning a pageant at the end of the series. When The Surjury was announced by Channel 4 last year, however, in which a 12-strong jury would decide if people should undertake cosmetic surgery, there was widespread outrage.

But there is hope yet, in the search for a show that is both entirely bonkers and not entirely problematic. This year a sperm-donor-themed dating series called Labor of Love launched, hosted by Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis. Over eight episodes, 15 men participate in challenges that test their parenting skills before Kristy Katzmann – a former Bachelor contestant – decides who to start a family with. I did a double take at this synopsis, and with the first episode seeing a contestant “win” a segment for having the highest sperm count, I haven’t looked back since.

Though Labor of Love will keep me sated for now, I can’t help but feel partly responsible as a viewer for reality TV’s race to the ever-trashier bottom. When pitching this piece, my editor quipped about the likelihood of Netflix commissioning Love or Die Trying, in which a terminally ill, lovesick patient seeks someone to marry in the final week of their life. Not only did I immediately think it was real, I’d never wanted to watch something more.