Near the end of the third season of Are You the One?, MTV’s mind-boggling The Bachelor-meets-OKCupid-meets-Algebra reality show, one contestant attempts to win the competition by constructing an equation out of red Solo cups. According to talking-head interviews during the show, he takes three hours to puzzle through it, during which time most of the other contestants look at what he’s doing, rub their heads in confusion, and wander away.
Viewers would be forgiven for doing the same to the show, honestly, and yet its fourth season premieres this week. Are You the One? is, by far, the most complicated reality competition show I’ve ever seen—a trait made much more compelling by the fact that it’s also one of the most joyously stupid reality competition shows I’ve ever seen. The show places 10 incredibly attractive men and 10 incredibly attractive women between the ages of 21 and 25 in a tropical vacation house in which they are literally encouraged to fuck each other in between almost meaningless challenges that MTV’s The Challenge wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot Under Armour-brand pole. Here’s the twist: When they aren’t fucking or yelling or completing in challenges, they are forced to navigate an incredibly difficult math problem. Yes, math.
I began watching it because, with Road Rules having been off the air for almost a decade, The Challenge is running out of new contestants. And Are You the One? has become a feeder to The Challenge, with former cast members competing on the much-higher-budget show against legendary (aka old) competitors like CT and Johnny Bananas. Wanting to see where these new idiots came from, I tuned in, but the sheer weirdness of Are You The One? kept me watching.
Here’s how the game works, at least, at its core (there are even more twists I’ll explain in a second). Ten men and ten women are interviewed and paired up by “expert matchmakers” before the show begins, forming ten “perfect match” couples, though the contestants don’t know who their “perfect match” is. The goal of the game is for the 20 hotties to pair themselves up correctly into the 10 “perfect match” couples, at which point they’ll win a million dollars to be split amongst the whole group. $50,000 each is a pretty decent payout for an MTV show.
Each episode, they’ll pair off based on who they think their “perfect match” might be, and complete a challenge. The majority of the show’s budget obviously went to the house the cast stays in and the million-dollar prize, because most of these challenges are made of construction paper and popsicle sticks: for example, running up and down a beach to retrieve objects and then placing those things in specific areas. The best challenges are when the cast’s exes come onto the show and answer questions about their “now-famous” cast member ex; shit-talking is encouraged.
The top two or three or four winning couples of the challenge go on a “private date,” which is something like going on an ATV or taking a helicopter ride. The remainder of the contestants left back in the house vote on which of the winning couples they want to go to the “truth booth”—a Port-a-Potty covered in bamboo fencing in which the contestants stand while a laser beam casts over them to, I guess, analyze whether they’re a perfect match? It looks kind of like they’re being scanned by a barcode reader. The truth booth will reveal whether the chosen couple is a “perfect match” or not.
At the end of each episode, all of the contestants get dressed up and go to the matchmaking ceremony. The host, a skinny guy named Ryan Devlin who also works as an actor (you may remember him from later seasons of Veronica Mars and Brothers and Sisters), asks them all to make their best guesses; on one episode, the men choose who they think might be their perfect match, and on alternating episodes, the women choose.
The pairs then “lock in” by, I swear to god, placing their palms on two iPads embedded in a lectern in front of the host. After everyone is “locked in,” Ryan Devlin places his own palms on the iPads — he has some kind of amazing power to reveal matches, apparently — and the beams of light are revealed.
There are 10 beams of light, one for each “perfect match” couple. At each matchmaking ceremony, the beams light up to reveal how many of the guesses are correct, but not which specific couples are correct, which is already a hard thing to get your brain around. If one beam of light appears, only one out of the 10 couples is actually a perfect match — but which one? Who knows? Everyone up there thinks they’re sitting with their perfect match, but it could be any of them.
What this show is, really, is a game of probability and combination. After the second season, the producers realized they needed to penalize the house for getting a “blackout,” or zero beams of light, because a blackout actually gives lots of solid data to the cast—which even they, sometimes, realize. While a single beam of light gives no data, because any one of the guesses could be the right one, a blackout means that every single guess is wrong. In Season 2, before the blackout rule was instituted, the cast scored two blackouts, drastically reducing the amount of trial-and-error needed and making the game extremely easy. Thus, for the past two seasons the show has penalized the cast $250,000 for each blackout, which in itself is kind of an admission that the game has holes in it. Mathematical ones, at least.
(Another admission of math-related screw-ups: Devlin admitted in a suspiciously bubbly and promotional AMA on Reddit that the cast is not allowed pens or paper, because that would result in a show that was 90 percent very dumb people sitting around and drawing out probability charts… The other 10 percent would still probably be fucking.)
But the math part of it is so fun for viewers, in fact, that somebody has actually created an entire Tumblr to track the possibilities. Initially, there are 10! (that’s 10 factorial, if you remember your high-school math: 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) possibilities. So a purely random guess has a 1 in 3,628,800 chance of being correct. With each bit of information — each truth booth and each “lock in” ceremony — the number of possible combinations reduces. Score a perfect match in the truth booth, and you can knock the possibilities down a whole factorial: One perfect match means you’ve only got 9! possible combinations left. Each lock-in ceremony makes things more complicated, because you have to make assumptions by linking probabilities together, but almost no matter what happens, a lock-in ceremony reduces the number of possible combinations.
The Tumblr creates multiple graphs each episode, updating with the likelihood of each individual couple being a “perfect match” and also criticizing the cast’s strategy in each episode: They routinely pick couples to go to the truth booth who do not really assist with the task of reducing the number of possible combinations. Well, duh: They’re playing with their hearts! It’s just that their hearts are very dumb. Also, their heads.
On Quora, one math whiz figured out that there’s only a 2 percent chance of beating the game within ten episodes if played completely randomly. He eventually figured out an integer program that I do not understand even a little bit, but he says he ran it 10,000 times and managed to get 10 perfect matches within 10 episodes a whopping 89 percent of the time. (And completely without the involvement of silly imprecise data inputs like love.) Another Quora user notes that data like “two people like each other” are often used in the cast’s strategy, but, well: “Considering that the premise of the show is that they’re terrible at finding mates, this may be a false assumption.”
Many fans have also repeatedly wondered whether the game is rigged. All three seasons have so far won the game, each season doing so in precisely 10 episodes. As far as math goes, this seems unlikely to happen organically. Not impossible, but certainly unlikely.
What makes the show special is that it has all the hallmarks of we-all-live-together shows (The Real World, Big Brother) with the noted addition of the fact that, well, it is a competition show, but they’re all on the same team. One person can’t win at the expense of another, which seems to immediately confuse a lot of the contestants. There really is no reason why each episode’s challenge should ever be competitive, as they aren’t competing for much; the whole group should just throw every single challenge to ensure that the most likely matches actually go to the truth booth. But the men are all constructed like big piles of rubble and they’re on national television trying to impress 10 hot babes. Even when they try, they can’t ever seem to realize that they can’t win the game without the other men also winning.
Couples in the Are You the One? house very often fall for each other within minutes (“Do you like ice cream?” “Yes” “Okay, we’re now in love”), only to find out in the truth booth that they aren’t a “perfect match.” Then they’ll spend five episodes continuing to hook up in what the cast and host repeatedly and embarrassingly call “the boom boom room” while the entire rest of the cast screams at them for messing up the game. (But chemistry is chemistry!) There is lots and lots of classic MTV-shot “on camera” sex (night-vision camera, under a sheet, writhing movements), screaming and throwing things, and the overwhelming visual stimulation of 20 extremely hot people walking around a Hawaiian villa pretty much naked.
The show does not “work,” if by work you mean actually pair people up into successful relationships. (Although rarely do dating shows, even the ones without difficult math, find success for their participants.) One couple in the first season got married and had a baby (incredibly quickly, actually—by the premiere of the following season), but one of the best parts about the show is looking on Wikipedia and seeing the list of which of the couples are still together. (None of them. Both matchmaking and math might just be shams.)
The fourth season already has all the hallmarks of the show I love so much. It moves very quickly; it has far too many characters; the rules of the game are ridiculously complicated; and an extra, useless twist was added for no reason I can tell. Each season has boasted some twist: In Season 2, an 11th girl was added literally 20 seconds after the usual 10 girls met; the usual 10 girls all decided instantly that this 11th girl was a monster who was here to steal their men, whom they also met 20 seconds ago. Season 3 brought the rule that blackouts at the lock-in ceremony cost the cast $250,000 each. This season, the host demanded that the initial truth booth pairs be picked right after the contestants first met each other, to see if “love at first sight” is real. I won’t spoil whether it’s real, but you can probably guess.
Are You the One? is a surprisingly successful show; the finale last season drew a 1.42 rating in its key demographic, people between the ages of 12 and 34. (Ha! I’m still in MTV’s key demographic! For a couple more years, anyway.) That’s in the same league as premieres of Teen Mom and other MTV stalwarts, so I assume Are You the One? will stick around. It isn’t for everyone; it takes a certain type of person to be able to tolerate the antics of very loud and dumb and dubstep-soundtracked 20-somethings whose entire goal is to be publicly fuckable. But if you are that kind of person — and if you’ve enjoyed The Real World, Jersey Shore, Bad Girls Club, and The Challenge and you love math — it’s an excellent way to waste the summer.