Matchmaker, Matchmaker: Making Sense of a New Glut of Reality Shows

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Back in the 1960s, there was a Milton Bradley board game called Mystery Date. Advertised during Saturday morning cartoons with a nifty jingle -- "Open the doooooor for yooooour mystery date" -- it was aimed at girls age 6 to 14. The game went like this: You took turns picking out outfits for your date from cardboard cards with pictures of skinny white ladies on them. The wardrobe choices divided dates into only four categories. For the "formal dance," the picture was of a Barbie-like blond in a flouncy dress with a fur stole. For the bowling date, it showed Capri pants with a tight sweater. For the beach date, a swimsuit. For the ski date, stretch pants, tight sweater and, if I remember correctly, earmuffs.

Let's pause and consider for a sec. Through this commercialized piece of social conditioning came the message to young girls that three out of four dating alternatives would involve sports. To me, that sounded too much like gym. Why were there no cards for going to Orange Julius and catching an Elvis flick at the Granada?

With Mystery Date, you opened a little door on the game board to find your "dream date" or, wah-wah, you found Poindexter, the dud. If your date wasn't dressed to match your card, or if you got Mr. Dud, you lost and had to slam the door in his face and try again.

Telling women how and whom they should date always has been part of our pop culture landscape.

Remember The Dating Game, the afternoon TV show in the 1960s and '70s hosted by the affable Jim Lange? Three bachelors on elevated swivel seats answered questions from a pretty girl who'd pick one, sight unseen, for a chaperoned outing to Knott's Berry Farm or the San Diego zoo. Tom Selleck, then a college basketball star, was a date prospect on the show once. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on in 1973. Comedian Paul Lynde was, too. Boy, was that single gal in for a sur-PRY-ize there. Lynde, star of The Hollywood Squares, wasn't just gay, he was center-square gay. Richard Ramirez, better known later as The Nightstalker serial killer, also got on The Dating Game. Yipes.

Post-Dating Game came Love Connection, hosted by the unctuous Chuck Woolery, who coined the phrase "back in two and two" to indicate the length of commercial breaks and the average IQ of contestants. This was the first of the mean-spirited dating shows. After set-ups, each couple would report back on-camera about what happened, including sordid details and sometimes video of the man or woman doing the walk of shame the morning after.

Many of the men on Love Connection looked like serial killers. Since this we've had Blind Date, Cheaters, Rock of Love, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, Temptation Island, Joe Schmo, The Bachelor and his many -ettes and many, many others.

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VH1
Steve Ward
Now a new glut of dating-related programs is crowding the cable channels. Like ABC's Bachelor, the spin on these is that scores of gorgeous young women in New York, Los Angeles and Miami can't get dates. The new twist is that the hosts are so-called matchmakers who give single people "love makeovers" and teach them how to relate better inter-personally, which sometimes means telling girls not to twirl their hair so much.

Matchmaker and "love coach" Siggy Flicker hosts VH1's Why Am I Still Single?! Second generation "master matchmaker" Steve Ward fronts VH1's Tough Love series and provides dating advice on CW's Dr. Drew's Lifechangers. Bravo has Patti Stanger, harpy-host of Millionaire Matchmaker. Each follows a similar gimmick, taking attractive men and women and convincing them they're flawed and need fixing before they can be loved.

Of course, like all current reality shows, the fix is in on the shows themselves. As detailed in veteran reality-TV writer and Bachelor producer Troy DeVolld's new book, Reality TV: An Insider's Guide, every aspect of these programs is "cooked." The women are actress-model-whatevers cast for their appearance and their willingness to forgo dignity and canoodle on television; ditto the men. Nobody's really on to get help finding a mate. They want a date with fame and fortune. And they wouldn't mind being the next Bethenny Frankel, who started out as the smack-talking single one on Real Housewives of New York City, then met and married a guy on-camera and got her own spin-off.

On Tough Love, Steve Ward has the women go on dates while wearing earpieces, through which he feeds them dialogue that's supposed to win men over. He had one lady ask her date if he'd ever get a "Prince Albert" (slang for a pierced penis). Whatever happened to "what's the last good book you read?"

Episode of Tough Love Miami:


Some of Ward's advice for successful dating is valid. Don't talk or drink too much. Don't 'fess up to having a long list of old lovers. Says Ward, "For women, it should be like a golf score, the lower the better." (But not for men? Huh.) On Loveline, now in its 28th year of relationship advice on late-night radio, Dr. Drew Pinsky always tells men and women "less history, more mystery," especially early in relationships. That makes sense.

But Ward likes spouting his rules, which are numerous. No. 55: "Stop staring, please. Making eye contact shows confidence, but too much makes you look a little crazy." Maybe he should work with Michele Bachmann.

Siggy Flicker worked with a 25-year-old virgin on the first episode of Why Am I Still Single? Given a makeover of blue eye shadow and hair extensions and advised by a team of Flicker's "love pickers," the poor girl was set up on a date and coached not to fiddle with her hair or pick her teeth during the meal. (In the olden days, we had similar coaching from a different sort of matchmaker: We called them "mothers.")

Episode of Why Am I Still Single?:


This same stuff is all the rage on TV in China right now, where shows like Day Day Up draw 100 million viewers by taking the old Dating Game model and mixing in heaps of humiliation and materialism.

Dating is hard everywhere. Meeting someone to date is hard whatever age you are. Note the endless TV ads for eHarmony and Match.com, who say their newest major demographic of users is singles over 50.

There are 99.6 million unmarried Americans over age 18, representing nearly 44 percent of the adult population, according to the 2010 census. For every 100 unmarried women in this country, there are 88 unmarried men.

With those odds, using the Mystery Date model, we can no longer slam the door so quickly. If there's anything the TV matchmakers have right, it's that you have to widen your qualifications for dating material and then give it time, trusting your instincts about who's the stud or the dud. Shows like The Bachelor, with their emphasis on skin-deep qualities and instant rejections, have it wrong. Your Poindexter could turn out to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Your dream date could become the next Nightstalker.

I remember among the loser cards in the board game was a guy dressed like a construction worker, which tells you a lot about attitudes toward blue-collar jobs in the '60s. In retrospect, he was pretty cute and would have had union wages, steady work and good benefits. Mystery Date's Mr. Dreamy looked like a cruise ship hustler in a white dinner jacket. The ski date had a Eurotrashy smirk and probably a serious case of the clap. The nerd guy in the skinny tie and glasses was the one we should have gone for. But what did we know? We were young and obsessed with Davy Jones and Grape Yum-Yum Kiss lipstick.

And this is how a generation of American girls grew up thinking that skiing and bowling were necessary skills for courtship.

Mystery Date commercial 1965:

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