It’s been quite some time since a broadcast network tried to knock off The Bachelor, but here comes Fox’s Coupled (tonight, 9 p.m. ET), Mark Burnett’s first attempt at a dating series.
Fox has been pitching this series as something different, with its press release headline declaring, “Women Have First Choice”. It said the show:
“…follows 12 single, smart and young professional women looking for love, who will meet face-to-face with eligible single men against the beautiful backdrop of the Caribbean islands. The women have first choice as they instantly decide if they feel a spark of chemistry and want to spend more time with each guy, or if they don’t feel a connection and want to wait for the next one. The real soap opera unfolds as new couples are formed and have to discover whether or not they have the compatibility to make their relationships last.”
That last sentence—oh, how it just bowls over the fact that the show quickly becomes every other dating show after that initial idea.
If you are looking for a series that empowers women and treats them like humans instead of objects of desire, Coupled does not start well. Host Terrence J, a former E! News anchor and host of BET’s 106 & Park, identifies the women first by their appearance: “12 beautiful, accomplished, sophisticated women.”
Want to guess how he introduces the men? As “accomplished, eligible guys.” That emphasis on appearance is repeated frequently by the first man, Alex, who, for one example, says Domonique, a lawyer, is “a sexy lawyer. Very tall, very sexy.”
So yes, it’s the same objectification that these kinds of shows heave up like a cat that just licked its way out of a trash can in a hair salon. In fairness to these shows, they’re just regurgitating dated but still persistent societal norms, but there’s no reason for them to perpetuate those norms so lazily.
To be fair: Although that’s his introduction to the series, later, Terrence J does describe the men as “handsome, professional guys” and also calls himself “handsome.”
The sexism really ramps up with the show’s structure, which once again gives men all the power in the game/relationships. I find that infuriating, especially in The Bachelorette, which strips the woman of her power in the last episode and allows the men to propose to her. She can say no, sure, but the message is clear, as it is in this show’s premiere: men make the decisions in relationships.
The good and bad in Fox’s Coupled
Let’s start with the series’ best idea, even though it’s a variation of The Bachelor‘s limo meet-and-greets.
A new man shows up in a helicopter, and then meets individually with each woman for a few moments to see if there’s a connection that they want to explore further. But that choice is hers—and she makes it by going down one of two boardwalks that are behind him. He cannot see, but we can: In the same shot, you see him desperately hoping she’ll choose him, and then see which way she turns. That’s clever and watching the rejection happen so quickly and visually is fun.
After that it’s all downhill, because the way “new couples are formed” is by the men.
The women who say yes go wait at the tiki bar, where there’s an abbreviated version of The Bachelor‘s first cocktail party. He then chooses two of them to take home with him to a massive mansion, for some three-way action. After a day together, he chooses one of them, and they become “coupled,” and it’s not clear what happens after that. Perhaps the series has some surprises in store once everyone is paired up.
The rest of the women go back to their pen—excuse me, the bungalows—waiting for another man to come rescue them, and when that helicopter comes, they really do scream like they’re being rescued. That’s not exactly what the marketing for the show suggests.
Fox’s press release also says that texting, which is apparently “the one thing that all modern romances have in common,” will be prominently featured, “giving the audience a front row seat to the real drama, as their text conversations pop up on screen.”
There are some selfies and a text from the host to all the women, but incredibly, the most prominent story-driven usage of texting seems totally fake. While the first man, Alex, is with one of two women he chose, Brittany, on the beach, they take a selfie. The show cuts to the pool, where the other woman, Lindsey, is lounging, looking at her phone. We see a representation of a group message pop up (yes, it’s 2016 and we still have on-screen interfaces that are as plausible as the ones from The Net), which shows the photo they took along with a message from Brittany: “Me and Alex at the VILLA!!!”
In other words, she just texted Lindsey to rub in how much fun she’s having with Alex. Rude!
But there is literally nothing that suggests that this is anything more than post-production’s creation of a moment to create some emotional stakes—constructing tension between women, because there’s nothing better for dating shows than women fighting each other over the only available man. Lindsey does not react to the text, or say anything, nor do we ever see her phone or even her face. The way it’s edited and presented led me to question whether that was even sent or she received it.
For a show populated by “smart” and “professional women,” as Fox said, Coupled certainly doesn’t do much to establish their intelligence or professionalism. About the most character development we get in the first episode is Alex, a 23-year-old “radio personality” from Louisville saying, “I want a conservative husband, I want to live in the South, I want to have guns in my house.”
Or there’s Brittany: “I’m so hoping I come home with a boyfriend,” she says to another woman, and then repeats it in an interview: “I am 100 percent a businesswoman by nature, but I’m such a hopeless romantic by heart. I am really hoping I come back with a boyfriend.” There’s a lot of desperation here, which is I suppose what you want in casting.
Ultimately, Coupled‘s premiere hour makes it seem like little more than The Bachelor in disguise. Swap the mansion for an island, throw in more than one suitor, plus a pop music soundtrack, which is different and works well, and the show also has the hallmarks of the typical Mark Burnett aesthetic, with helicopter establishing shots of Anguilla, the Caribbean island setting for the series. There’s also a very diverse cast, including—gasp!—a black bachelor.
But the rest is the same. The men still have all the power, and the ill-conceived structure is essentially the same. Worse for a television show that is doing all of this to earn ratings, Coupled is kind of a drag in its first episode. Perhaps that will change once everyone is coupled or whatever the next stage is. For now, though, it’s clear that The Bachelor may be even worse with its treatment of women, but it is definitely more watchable.