She thinks she wants him, but really, she needs me. He doesn’t appreciate her like I do, won’t love her like I could. She is blind to his control, but I want to free her from it. For her—for us. So we can be together.
We will be together.
It is week one of filming. The chosen few arrive on set with glossy hair, and bright smiles, and a suitcase bulging with only their best—the most flattering colors, the sexiest silhouettes; they are here to find love as the world is watching.
Overcaffeinated producers greet each participant and assign them temporary living quarters. The men are at one end of the property; their space is modern and sleek, with a game room and a gym. Beer. The women reside at the opposite end; their space is soft and inviting, with luxurious sofas and a spa. Rosé.
I have worn a path between both. I am always at the edges—unobtrusive, observant. Filming. Drinking in every tender moment to be released and consumed by the masses.
The rooms buzz with the giddy voices of these handpicked contestants—the best, the shiniest. The loneliest. They’ve come to find love, but they don’t know what to expect—who to expect. The women envision angles and edges of mysterious men. They hope for someone strong and compassionate, a good listener, a safe place. Brown eyes, maybe blue. Tall. The women sit in groups, smiling, and laughing, and wishing for tomorrow to come.
The other end is much the same, with voices deeper, lower. Men discuss their ideals and their visions while pacing the room—nervous figures in dark jeans. Some want an adventure seeker, a fitness partner, or a homemaker. A friend, a beauty, and a lover wrapped in one. All have needs, desires. All want satisfaction. The men lean on counters, and slap shoulders, and wish each other the best.
I visit each domain to gather the footage I need, to record the faces the world will soon grow to love or despise. I work efficiently, filming each subject in equal measure, but I linger in the place that smells like a garden—a garden of fruit and florals and skin. Hair and lips. Curves. I am surrounded by beauty, but I am ignored, hidden behind this bulk of equipment that brings their story to the world; it is the all-seeing eye, remembering everything and blinking only at my command.
I remain, as the sun goes down and the chatter quiets, to capture the mundane moments of single men and women winding down and preparing for bed. But no one will sleep tonight; tomorrow could be the day they find love.
Today, the singles will meet in a frenzy of dates. It’s always my busiest day. The producers want to catch everything—every micro expression exchanged between strangers, every visceral reaction to his smile or her laugh. I must be everywhere.
I record a promising pair, who hits it off right away. They seem compatible; he’s a veterinarian, she’s a realtor, and both are independent and intelligent, with big goals and dreams. They lean in closer as the conversation progresses.
One date ends abruptly when a fast-talking insurance salesman insults a metropolitan librarian with a joke about her being surprisingly attractive. She tells him he’s shallow and not worth her energy and leaves the table. He still doesn’t know what he did wrong.
Another couple is all heat. They flirt and banter and touch knees under the table. She wants a big family and he’s up for the challenge. She blushes at his comment about needing the practice.
One couple in particular catches my interest. He's a business executive, steely and confident. She’s a schoolteacher, heart-faced with kind eyes. He commands the room with his brawn, his booming voice. She is honey—sweet and unspoiled. They connect like magnets; we all feel the pull.
Love lingers in the air as day fades to night. The groups of singles return to their rooms, some shaking with excitement, some downcast at their lack of connection. The herd will be thinned in the days to come and those left unmatched will go home. After all, this is television; the world doesn’t want to be depressed by the undesirable. They want passion and drama—a whirlwind romance in 4k resolution.
I follow the men, spanning from one chiseled face to the other. I imagine heat rising off the backs of these virile demi-gods, lusting after the majestic creatures they just encountered. Their fragile brotherhood will be challenged as some realize they are at war with each other, fighting for the hearts of the same women. But no one bares teeth on the first day.
At the other end, women drape themselves over couches and sip champagne with flushed cheeks and shaking hands. They are intoxicated with the rush; everything is dazzling and warm. They see stars and think they can reach them. Their hope is contagious, though some are afflicted by jealousy and are unable to hide it—especially from my trained eye. Taut lips, clenched teeth, a subtle twitch. But no one shows claws on the first day.
I’ve filmed seasons of experimental TV passion. This is just the beginning for them, but I’ve seen enough to know how it’s going to end. People can only put their best foot forward for so long. Eventually they stumble and fall and show the world what a fraud they are.
And the camera crew always sees it first.
It’s week two of filming. A dozen singles have gone home unmatched and unimpressed with the process, probably with a mindset to sue for emotional damage. Six couples remain. The studio is a circus as we pack, and load, and consult a lengthy checklist before embarking on a flight to an island where we know the locals by name. The vapidity of televised romance hasn’t lost its magic for them yet, and the sun-kissed islanders crowd our vans, cheering and waving as we weave through town.
Our couples will have ten days here to explore their relationship and get to know each other on a deeper level, and most waste no time. Shooting on an island feels supercharged, like the location itself is an aphrodisiac. The same people who were hesitant or holding back on set are loose and generously affectionate on the beach. They sprawl on sandy towels and assist each other with sunscreen. Drinks arrive, one after the other, and hands rove—over, under. The microphones catch the conversation, but nothing is really being said.
Each couple has been given an itinerary with exciting adventures or romantic excursions planned for each day. The power couple, the vet and the real estate agent, are ziplining in the jungle today. She loves a thrill, but he’s afraid of heights. The experience is meant to test their ability to work through challenges together. The producers can be cruel sometimes.
The handsy couple is taking a guided tour of a mollusk museum. I guess it was decided that they could use a bit of a cool down, to engage in something more cerebral. But tour guide present or not, I’m certain they will behave shamelessly and completely disregard the museum employee’s knowledge of fossilized scallops.
I’ve been assigned the teacher and the businessman, who will tour the island on an open-aired trolley as I trail behind, filming the highlights. It’s a cloudless day as we jostle along a bumpy road winding through the town. The businessman rests his meaty arm across her shoulders, which seems to me a bit possessive. She leans into the breeze, contentment tugging her lips into a smile. She watches each scene rolling by, and waves at a group of children kicking a soccer ball. She turns around momentarily, glancing at me. She hasn’t forgotten me. I wave—a slight flick of the fingers—and she smiles back, her full lips expressive, teasing. My insides roll with the next bump.
We exit the trolley at the marketplace, where locals line the street in booths overflowing with fruit, and jewelry, and tapestries, and pottery. The heart-faced teacher greets each artisan as she stops to admire their work. An old woman selling jewelry made of seashells rises from her seat and intersects the couple. She lifts a necklace from the table and drapes it around the young woman’s neck. The teacher touches each shell reverently, speaking praise with her eyes. The jewelry maker pushes at the air with her hands, insisting she keep the necklace—a gift. The businessman pulls a wad of bills from his pocket and folds them into her weathered hands, patting them and smiling.
The red dot blinks when I turn the camera on his face, his eyes crinkling in the corners under sleek sunglasses. What a showoff. I bring the focus on her. Sun-bleached shells rest against her collarbone and drape across her breasts. She laughs, smiling up at the man beside her. She is the island itself—a burning sun, a luscious forest. Her body and her mind are a territory that demand adoration—reverence. The man tugs her elbow, ushering her along, oblivious to her glory. He is concrete, gray, and cold, and unyielding, encroaching on the sacred.
I will not let him.
It is the end of week three of filming, and the final day of the experiment. By day’s end, six couples will either announce their engagement, or leave the island as they came—single. Time, truth, and the pressure of reality television has revealed that not everyone is as perfect as they seem.
The vet and the real estate agent fool everyone. They had a promising start and burned white hot in their ocean view suite of The Hotel Grandiosa, but I could see from the beginning it was never going to work. He’s a self-absorbed narcissist, and she’s obsessively controlling. They crash and burn the second the cameras turn away.
When the handsy couple finally did come up for air and began to get to know each other, they learned that they are equally uninteresting people and promptly resumed foreplay. There is a betting pool amongst the crew, with the majority being convinced that their lustful fling is truly love; but I am not so naïve and am looking forward to the payout.
Now, I am stationed at the docks to film the moment the teacher and her businessman either become engaged or break it off and go their separate ways. I unpack my equipment and set up my tripod, struggling to keep it balanced with its dented leg bowing in on itself. We’ve witnessed a lot of proposals together, but this is one I’d rather miss.
The sun hangs in the sky, its neon hues mirrored across the water. The heart-faced girl stands on the boardwalk, as radiant as ever, looking concerned. Doubt and worry crease her forehead. She is probably wondering if he has changed his mind, or if she has read him wrong. She must be feeling humiliated, to be standing here alone at sunset, not even given the chance to see this love experiment through to the end—to go home alone by default.
When the sun disappears, it takes her hope with it. Tears leave a trail on her downy cheeks, and he is not here to wipe them away.
And he never will be.
I abandon my camera and step forward, feeling naked and exposed without it. But she deserves transparency; I will never hide from her. And she will never hide from me. We will know and love every part of each other. This will not be a love scripted by fame seekers or tainted by greedy viewers. This will be no drunken debauchery exchanged in the name of entertainment. Ours will be a love so pure and profound that it lives beyond the boundaries of our lifetime—the stuff of poetry and mythology. Her fathomless eyes meet mine as I step closer. Closer.
Voices rise around me and several crew members stride toward the woman standing on the dock. My woman. Frazzled producers shout orders and make endless calls as the crew packs in a rush. A siren warbles in the distance, drawing closer. Sweat trickles down my spine as snippets of conversation rise above the chaos: a body. Washed up on shore. It’s him.
She’s too far away from me now. There are too many people touching her, holding her, pulling her away from me, and I can’t push through. They are ruining everything. I must get to her.
She is upset now, but soon she’ll realize that he was never good enough for her, that he didn’t deserve her. Soon she’ll see that I did this for her. For us. So we can be together.
We will be together.
A new voice, someone grim and uniformed speaks to the production crew in a smoker’s gravel. He says the dead man was found on the shore with damage to the back of the skull. Murder everyone whispers in suffocated shrieks. The man continues, hypothesizing the blow was caused by something smooth and heavy, like a metal bar or tube. He urges us to be on our guard.
My eyes nearly betray me by turning to the dented leg of my tripod.
“It’s terrible. Sick.” I shake my head. “They were the perfect couple.”