Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Boyfriend on Netflix is the most groundbreaking dating show in years

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In an era of high-concept dating shows, the premise of Netflix’s latest Japanese offering, The Boyfriend, is a pretty simple one. A group of singles in their twenties and thirties move into a beautiful house for a few weeks in the summer; over that time, they hope that they’ll share a romantic spark with someone who might then become their partner.  

What makes The Boyfriend groundbreaking, though, is that all the contestants are gay and bisexual men, making the series the first same-sex dating show based in Japan. The country is the only G7 nation that has not yet legalised same-sex marriage, despite polls suggesting that more than 70 per cent of the population would be in favour of doing so. Few Japanese celebrities feel able to come out, often fearing that opening up about their sexuality might damage their careers; media representation of the LGBTQ community often falls into flamboyant stereotypes.  

Against this backdrop, a show like this one feels like a huge step forward in normalising queer relationships. After all, same-sex couples have been able to get married in Britain since 2014, and had the option to have a civil partnership for about 10 years before that, but it was only in 2023 that an all gay dating showI Kissed a Boy, aired on British TV (followed by I Kissed a Girl this year). 

It’s also a leap of faith for the contestants too. We’re introduced to them in classic dating show style, with a quick montage of their life outside the series, but their opening soundbites go much deeper than describing their type on paper. Taeheon, a designer from Korea, hasn’t spoken to his family about his sexuality yet, and is hoping that the series will give him the opportunity “to express myself openly and show my family who I really am”. Another contestant notes that he’s prone to closing himself off from potential partners, for fear of getting hurt. “If I’m vulnerable, I’ll grow,” he says. You don’t tend to get that in the Love Island beach hut confessionals.  

The stakes are clearly high for these contestants, so the producers don’t need to try to raise them artificially. There are no dramatic eliminations. The men seem to have been selected because they’re genuinely looking for love, rather than being picked out as TV troublemakers or wannabe celebs. Instead of taking part in sexed-up challenges that require them to start snogging before they’ve even committed each other’s names to memory, the group is given the rather sedate, Apprentice-esque challenge of running a coffee van together during their time in the house. The rationale is that by living and working alongside one another, they’ll get to properly see all the sides of their love interests’ personalities. There’s also a panel of commentators who sit in a studio, passing judgement on the interactions we’ve just watched, a bit like the “experts” in Married at First Sight.  

The contestants live together while working in a coffee van

The contestants live together while working in a coffee van (Courtesy of Netflix)

Sometimes, the men must excuse themselves from the shared house in order to deal with work commitments or just to meet up with their friends, making the set-up a much more authentic one than a hermetically sealed villa. The whole approach seems designed not to produce conflict but to slowly foster connection. And although it’s relatively low-drama (the biggest upset is over the cost of buying enough chicken to keep up one of the men’s protein intake), it certainly hooks you in. In the first episode, the contestants must write an anonymous note to the boy they’re most interested in and leave it in his personal mailbox. The next morning, everyone is clamouring to work out who wrote to who (and when some of them receive nothing at all, their responses are quietly heartbreaking). 

Despite its sheer existence being a historic moment, The Boyfriend is entertainment, not activism. In the first few episodes, there are some brief nods to the challenges that gay people face in Japan, both in terms of finding partners and wider acceptance. But for the most part, the emphasis is on letting the men and their relationships speak for themselves, rather than straining for louder political statements. We’ll have to wait and see whether it will change attitudes in Japan – but it certainly gives us a blueprint for a different kind of dating show, one that’s the perfect antidote to Love Island fatigue. 

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