In the realm of reality dating television, “The Mansion” is a character in and of itself—designed to manipulate contestants, as well as everybody watching
Across the realm of reality dating television, producers are asking themselves a crucial question: How do you set the stage for falling in love?
The answer they tend to land on? A mansion sat in a tropical destination, ablaze in fluorescent light, with all the beds in one room like whimsical military barracks. The color scheme should be blinding, and neon signs—heart-shaped or twisted into cursive innuendos—are a massive plus. Above all, the seating is non-traditional: beanbags, conversation pits, hammocks, suspended benches, or ideally, all of the above.
“The Real World was the first real house reality show,” said Scott Storey, the designer best-known for his work on Big Brother—granted, not a romance series, but one that paved the way for the most outrageous TV compounds under construction today. “Those houses all looked great, but they didn’t really have a character.” For Storey, the set isn’t just the stage—it’s a personality in and of itself, as instrumental as the chiseled heartthrob or the agitating villain. In the past, he’s done Big Brother up like a campground, flush with plaid and rustic wood paneling; an airport terminal, authentic down to its massive departures board; the show’s latest concept, for Season 24, went the “getaway” route—mid-century Palm Springs.
The point being: “The house sets the tone. If you want to do a lovely house, you’re not going to expect crazy drama.” It’s a fact any reality buff knows well. You have to transport, easing cast members into a fantasy mindset where everyday codes of conduct don’t apply; you can cheat, lie, and manipulate in the name of the game, and who could hate you for it? (Answer: Many, many thousands of people.)
“The set isn’t just the stage—it’s a personality in and of itself, as instrumental as the chiseled heartthrob or the agitating villain.”
In regards to influencing contestants, the grandest aspiration—the one that a show’s success is contingent upon—is to create a balance between true privacy, and the simulation of it. Take Love Island, for instance—the show with perhaps the most recognizable design of the modern reality landscape, save for maybe the Bachelor Mansion. It’s built around the ideal of authentic romance; contestants cycle round an open-plan pool deck, entertaining themselves via the only mode available, given that phones and books and other amusements are confiscated—essentially, “chatting” to one another all day, every day. They’re relentlessly within each other’s sights; the “terrace” and the “firepit” and the “beanbags” become instrumental to the advancement of the plot, quasi-refuges on the corners of the set where group tensions play out and new couples are formed. The thirst for romance is satisfied, because lovers have a place where they can fall in love. Drama, too—because shit-talking, scheming, and efforts toward unsanctioned seduction will always be overheard.
This careful dance—developed piecemeal over the past couple of decades—can be tracked far outside the bounds of television, through the spaces we occupy in real life and online. We’ve all heard that design impacts human behavior. But reality shows are a case study demonstrating the truth of that idea, complete with its own history of trial-and-error, crowd-tested and archived with footage from every angle. These mansions can be viewed as dramatizations of what we aspire to in the day-to-day: outlandish vacations with hot suitors, broadcast to our own personal audience by way of Instagram or TikTok; public drama, but only where those in our camp come out on top; and the promise of micro-celebrity, where literally anyone can become a star.
Of course, you can’t forget that we’re being manipulated, too. “Great design can help create binge-watchable episodes,” reads a piece on the mansion that housed an early season of MTV’s Are You The One? “But it can’t be so over-the-top that it distracts viewers from the storyline itself.” Said Stephen Leonhardt, one of the show’s designers, “Sometimes, they’re having fights, or a party, or they’re having intimate conversations. We try to give them options of things to use, so there isn’t a feeling of repetitiveness as the season goes on.”
“This careful dance—developed piecemeal over the past couple of decades—can be tracked far outside the bounds of television, through the spaces we occupy in real life and online.”
It brings about the question of realness. If the set is drab, viewers eventually get bored. But if it looks like the theater, we won’t care to watch it in the first place. When it comes to dating-driven television, the portrayal of authentic bonds is paramount; tackiness can’t be so overwhelming as to undermine a show’s human heart. The catch-all solution, it seems, is the confessional: a private room, unassuming to the eyes of the contestant, green-screened for the audience for the sake of our fickle attention spans. There, we can hear cast members’ “true” thoughts, as told to the producers, unfiltered and contradictory and only partially-formed. It’s the perfect antidote to the mansion’s fantasy—destruction of the fourth wall in one universe, leaving it perfectly intact in the other.
The confessional, in particular, reflects our digital reality, as posited last fall by The Cut. “Across social media,” wrote Louis Staples, “we too can film, edit, and post our own confessional-style content.” And post we do: apology videos in response to criticism, and trivial storytelling, and video essays on people we don’t like, detailing why you shouldn’t like them either. He quotes Professor June Deery, who wrote a book on the subject: “The confessional could be seen as the quintessence of what I call the ‘staged actuality’ of reality TV—the combination of authenticity and artifice. It appears to be the most candid form of communication but can, in actuality, be highly manipulated.” Hence, confessional footage is filmed separately from the context of the mansion, after-the-fact, from a closet-like room that’s tame in comparison. In the confessional, a new set of rules applies. They might cut to photos of life back home, or let the producers’ voices be. It’s all for the viewer’s benefit—to deepen the bonds not among cast members, but among cast members and the audience itself.
If you’re an avid fan of Love Is Blind or Paradise Hotel or Perfect Match, but find yourself thinking, I could never fall in love in a place like this, it might be wise to ask yourself whether you already have.