You have seen the clip by now. A man with the sharp cheekbones and wide-eyed affect of a Pixar-rendered prince faces three women, who are each positioned on what appear to be circular floor rugs. The presenter Joel Dommett asks the man, “Who do you think is a Love Trap?”
There’s a long drawn out pause, as ominous music plays, eking out the tension like an Ant and Dec vehicle. It’s set up like any reality TV elimination scene (“three girls stand before me, but I only have two photos in my hands”), only with the exception that when the man, David, does eventually answer the presenter’s question – a “Love Trap” being a person already in a relationship who has been faking attraction to him to win money – the woman he names does not walk out of the room, or over to him for a hug of condolence. Instead, a trap door opens beneath her, and with that, she literally exits the show.
The Love Trap, Channel 4’s latest dating show, feels like its creators conceived the trap door premise to attract attention when it was shared via online clips, and worked backwards from there. Their attempt to appeal to shock and drama of a kind that is digestible on social media feels representative of a tectonic shift in unscripted TV in particular. This has been slowly rumbling, in the making, for a while, but it feels like it was solidified in 2021: Reality TV is all about spectacle now.
In July this year, the reality competition behemoth The X Factor was finally cancelled by ITV after 17 years on UK screens. It felt like the right time: the show – though once a highlight in the schedule for many, capable of making national headlines and, in the case of Cher Lloyd’s earth-stopping performance of “Stay” on Fright Night 2010, music history – had been losing viewers for years, and, in short, was starting to feel boring and predictable. After a shaky attempt to change things up in 2019 (with X Factor Celebrity and X Factor: The Band) and no show in 2020, therefore, the axe that had long been swinging above The X Factor’s head had to finally fall.
The reasons for the show’s faltering popularity has a lot to do with the other properties that were beginning to arrive on screens, as well as cultural developments that had been happening away from TV (after all, where television used to be the nucleus of the UK mainstream, the internet has somewhat taken its place for many, and arguably splintered that mainstream, too).
The Masked Singer, for example, an adaptation of South Korea’s King of Mask Singer, premiered on ITV in January 2020, and its bizarre and emphatically visual tone seems to have set the standard for the direction of new TV in this decade. By comparison with this chaos – edited like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan; frequently featuring a studio audience screaming the names of random celebrities as they try to guess who is dressed up as “Ancient Giant Squid” or similar, with the fervour of the Old Testament crowd deciding between Christ and Barabbas – something like The X Factor, with its drearily format, seems staid, dated, and past it.
The Masked Singer – whose spin off The Masked Dancer also launched on ITV in May this year – aired at 7PM on Saturdays for its 2021 season, which is a similar timeslot to the one once occupied by The X Factor. Over the course of the two month run, the show’s viewing figures grew week on week, with over ten million people tuning into the final episode. This signals a kind of baton passing: an acceptance of a new type of TV orthodoxy, ruled by the mores of the internet.
The internet and the way in which it presents information to us – social media timelines are constantly rolling; TikTok and YouTube videos are organised by algorithms offering us something different to watch if we’re not interested in what it previously vomited up to us – has completely changed what we as a culture look to for entertainment. It has also changed how we engage with television – particularly event television, which affords viewers the opportunity to post along with the action in real time.
Reality TV in particular also has to contend with the internet – the best reality show in the world – and therefore is happier than ever to both shock and replicate the internet’s modes of expression. The Masked Singer is a good example of a post-internet reality TV show, in its total embrace of the totally uncanny, and the explicitly visual. Others include ITV2’s Apocalypse Wow (the official ITV website description for which explains it better than I ever could: “This game show sees celebrities take on the terrifying Superhuman Bosses in a series of battles before the weakest of them is strapped inside a Human Piñata and beaten for cash”), Channel 4’s Naked Attraction, and, lately The Love Trap.
While other shows as old as The X Factor remain on TV – I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent, for example – none of them were ever as utterly dominant as Simon Cowell’s juggernaut, and were not, therefore, as synonymous with the culture of the mid-to-late 2000s and early 2010s (and if anything, Strictly’s reputation has only improved in recent years, possibly owing to X Factor’s downfall, while I’m a Celebrity, with its insistence on feeding celebrities the anuses of various unfortunate animals, could be viewed as an early adopter of the ‘spectacle’ TV mindset I’ve been discussing here). In a sense, it’s The X Factor’s one-time supremacy that has directly led to its 2021 death knell: There is, after all, very little that screams “2006” louder than the show which bore “It’s Chico Time.”
Internet virality seems to be the currency that makes the entertainment world go around, the sun around which TV and film now revolve. It’s not surprising: a lot of this stuff is designed for the sole purpose of popularity, after all. The fact that it’s so common for TV shows of all genres – particularly those on streaming services that people access via their laptops – to actively seek out social media screencaps by inserting dialogue or visual shorthands that appeal to established memes or the conversational standards on a particular website, however, can get a bit tiresome. While this type of shareability has the effect of spreading the show or moment further, it can also feel, at times, like a show’s marketing has been built into itself; like content for content’s sake.
And of course, this isn’t to say that the likes of The X Factor are any different: it’s all mainstream family entertainment, at the end of the day. TV is a product of its times, and our times are more bizarre than ever. It just seems that Aston from JLS, performing “Can’t Stop the Feeling” dressed as a small bird, is simply what you get when you submit even television to the algorithm.