Commentary: Why we’re hooked on chaste dating shows like Single's Inferno
We’re under the impression that reality TV is hedonistic and brainless – which is why Korean dating shows are a breath of fresh air, says CNA’s Erin Low.
SINGAPORE: You must have seen the steamy title card of Single’s Inferno on your Netflix feed.
It’s the first Korean reality show to crack Netflix’s list of global top 10 most-watched shows. In South Korea, it became most-watched title two days after its premiere on Dec 18, 2021.
You might think it’s just another trashy reality TV show. After all, it shares the same sexed up premise of Too Hot To Handle or Love Island: Beautiful people are stuck on a beach and spend their time trying to pair up.
But Single’s Inferno defies expectations. In the first few minutes of polite bows and self-effacing introductions, viewers will realise the show is very tame.
“Do you want a pillow?” one K-drama protagonist lookalike asks, to a waif-like fairy in a minidress who seats herself beside him. She gratefully accepts.
Cut to the commentators. “He seems to like her,” one says sagely. “It’s really obvious.”
And that sets the tone for the rest of Single’s Inferno. For all the participants’ complaints of the summer heat, their interactions with each other are remarkably mild. Physical contact, or “skinship”, put in K-pop vernacular, is shelved in favour of heart-to-heart conversations.
Despite – or maybe, because of – the disconnect between Single’s Inferno’s sultry setting and its prudishness, the show and its cast have attracted international media attention.
ALL THE ELEMENTS OF A K-DRAMA
Korean reality TV is a thriving scene. Single’s Inferno draws on predecessors like Heart Signal and Love Catcher, where strangers shack up with each other and embark on a quest for love, under certain constraints.
Everything is PG to cater to a conservative home audience. Just like Single’s Inferno, they have all the elements of a K-drama: Love triangles, missed opportunities, and finally winning someone’s affection through dogged perseverance.
Such subdued Asian reality shows seem to be making the rounds among a global audience. Case in point is Terrace House, a Japanese reality show that debuted in 2012 and got picked up by Netflix in 2015.
The series features a rotating cast of six members living together in a swanky house and their day-to-day trials and tribulations.
Since its launch on the streaming giant, Terrace House has gained a cult following in the West. A New York Times reviewer described the show as “hypnotically boring” – but he binged 46 episodes in one month.
So why are these shows where not much happen so compulsively watchable?
THOROUGHLY DECENT PEOPLE
The likes of Single’s Inferno and Terrace House subvert everything we know about Western reality TV. Shows like Too Hot To Handle – where participants must keep their hands off each other to win the most prize money as possible – only reinforce our impression that dating shows are hedonistic orgies where participants have zero self-control.
The Asian counterparts, on the other hand, feature grown adults who act the part.
Nobody creates drama for the sake of it. Tension mostly arises from miscommunication, which participants are willing to have mature conversations about and apologise for.
Persistent troublemakers will have to bear the gentle disappointment of their fellow members, or worse, a Dr Phil-style intervention where everyone takes turns sharing their hurt feelings.
Such thoughtfulness might invite the usual narrative of how Asians have more collectivist mindsets and will strive to keep the peace. Perhaps the attraction lies in their vulnerability when they try to express themselves frankly or work through conflicts.
Regardless, this wholesome brand of Asian reality TV is a breath of fresh air for all of us accustomed to the vulgarity-laced, scandal-filled fare other dating shows.
CAREFULLY CONSTRUCTED AUTHENTICITY
The other draw of shows like Single’s Inferno is their naturalism. Events are declared to be “unscripted”. Participants are cast as everyday people with everyday jobs – that is, if hitting the gym 2 hours a day to be in tiptop shape for your modelling gig is considered everyday.
But it’s disingenuous to say a reality show is totally authentic. Producers nudge contestants to do certain things, and edits can make reactions appear out of context.
One Single’s Inferno participant said some of his facial expressions were not in response to what’s shown in the footage, but to his own discomfort as he had dislocated his shoulder.
Still, the unscripted format makes it all the more relatable. Seeing regular people do their best to navigate the surrealness of their situation, form meaningful connections and split chores – which in Single’s Inferno, includes drawing water and cooking – is an uncanny reflection of life in lockdown, which is still a reality for some of us.
If only we had a private beach island and plenty of eye candy too.
A SOCIAL EXPERIENCE
A key element of Asian reality shows like Terrace House and Single’s Inferno is the commentary, typically provided by a panel of comedians, hosts or artistes.
After each significant moment, viewers are treated to insights from the panel. They take apart each interaction just as a sports commentator would analyse a football play. Each subtle glance, frown or remark is pregnant with meaning.
They admire those that demonstrate consideration or initiative, and chide any selfish behaviour or poor communication.
These commentators validate your feelings as a viewer. They make the experience of watching reality TV less mindless consumption of drivel, and more a social experience where the intricacies of human interaction are up for debate.
However, opening up reality TV to public judgment has sometimes resulted in ugly mob behaviour. Some viewers have taken to social media to harass and bully contestants whom they disagree with.
Single’s Inferno participant Song Ji-A has come under fire for wearing counterfeit luxury goods on the show. Not only has the influencer been dropped from Korean variety shows, she’s also been subjected to an online witch hunt as netizens accuse her of faking her material girl image.
Furors like this can have serious consequences. Terrace House member Hana Kimura committed suicide on May 23, 2020, after receiving a torrent of online abuse. Why? She fought with a fellow member because he accidentally washed and shrunk her expensive wrestling costume.
The dark side of uneventful reality shows is that trivial things can be blown out of proportion, when the cast are easy punching bags.
WE KNOW IT’S NOT REAL BUT WE CAN’T LOOK AWAY
The more enlightened among us knows the “authenticity” of Asian reality TV is very much an editorial choice. Though we’re aware of its artifice and the costs of keeping it up, we can’t look away, nor dull the voyeuristic thrill of watching private lives unfold.
Single’s Inferno might not be the last Korean reality television series to become mainstream, as the genre keeps pushing boundaries at home.
If you can’t imagine why anyone would sign up for isolation with strangers, wait until you hear about Transit Love. Same format, but instead of strangers, it houses pairs of exes together, where they can choose to rekindle old relationships or embark on new ones.
The show is dividing opinion in South Korea, with some praising its freshness, but others criticising it for endorsing infidelity.
Like Single’s Inferno, Transit Love is also being streamed online, which not only frees it from the conservative sensibilities of a domestic TV audience, but could allow it to reach international viewers.
Perhaps participants might even feel encouraged to engage in more physical displays of affection, to excite audiences as much as they warm our hearts.
Erin Low is research writer at CNA Digital. She also works on CNA podcasts Heart of the Matter and The Climate Conversations.