The opinions of the Australian viewing public may be divided on the merits of reality dating shows like Married At First Sight, but its stratospheric ratings are evidence of the voyeuristic appeal of coupling up.
The search for love is an enduring feature of the human condition and not only for 30-somethings: Viewers aged over 55 make up a third of the audience.
The concept of a reality dating show for mature-aged singles is well overdue.
With the divorce rate about 35 per cent, the potential viewing audience of a notional Married At Short Sight is even greater than the 1 million-plus nightly viewers who tuned in to the latest season of MAFS.
Its popularity with an older audience is proof of the universal appeal of finding love that lasts forever: It’s just that forever is a little more attainable once you reach your mid-50s.
With advancing years comes a refreshing disregard for the conventions of beauty so obsessed over by contestants in the current crop of television dating shows.
Of necessity, the focus of older singles tends less towards external appearances than on what’s going on inside. It would make for refreshing – and fascinating – viewing.
Plans for a ‘Boomer Bachelor’ series by the American Broadcasting Company – owners of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise – were mooted back in March 2020.
Thanks to COVID-19, the ABC’s plans were put on hold for the past 12 months, but early in February this year it put out the call for single applicants ‘entering [their] golden years and looking for romance.’
The application form shows a rigorous attention to legal details, such as a potential mate’s criminal record, temporary restraining order history and bankruptcy status. (A refreshing amount of disclosure compared to the online dating world, where an honest birth date is a rarity.)
Interspersed with standard questions about relationship history, hobbies and physical preferences are queries regarding bucket lists, grandchildren and – tellingly – ‘What have you not found, but would like to have in a relationship?’
After half a century or so of applicant experience, the answers are bound to be both diverse and fascinating.
An episode of Dating Around – a 2019 reality dating show set in New York – features 60-something-year-old Leonard.
The softly spoken Jewish New Yorker, with his gentle humour, openness and understated erudition could well be the drawcard for discerning women of a certain age, in much the same way as Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City drew younger women to the Big Apple in the late 1990s.
As New York is to the Gold Coast, Dating Around is the sophisticated older sibling to the brash and brassy MAFS.
Leonard manages to keep his composure even when one of his dates admits to preferring an early night because ‘I like to have my teeth out by 8pm’.
He gives honest answers to difficult questions. When asked what he wants out of the dating scene, he responds simply ‘‘I want to fall in love’’.
It may come as a surprise to younger viewers that the desire to fall in love doesn’t wane with age.
But the ‘reality’ of an over-60 dating show is that older age places limits on what singles can expect when forming a relationship in later life.
A friend in her mid-70s – happily partnered for 10 years – ascribes the success of her relationship to her partner’s skill as a foot masseur and his ability to make her laugh: A winning combination for late bloomers.
The knowledge that passion will dim with time makes for a more nuanced approach to any study of later love.
The important questions are less about physical attributes and more about what happens when passion turns to affection or friendship.
Will that be enough? Will both partners have enough time and patience to build a mutual trust and a commitment to see them through what remains of their lives?
Will they be open to communicating their fears and the baggage of a lifetime in order to work through the challenges posed by a foreshortened happy ever after?
These issues can be every bit as painful to work through as anything demanded of the more youthful MAFS contestants.
Few could fail to sympathise with Leonard when, after letting down a date gently, he gets back in the cab and says straight to camera ‘I hate this sh-t’.
His raw honesty would resonate with anyone – of any age – who has dipped a toe in the online fishpond.
This is the kind of authentic moment fans of reality dating shows turn on their television screens to find.
Elizabeth Quinn is a freelance writer who is interested in giving voice to women over 50. She is based in Melbourne