“This will be a good opportunity to kind of get what we need — which is a new house, now — and do it without adding additional stress to me,” says Jennifer, a woman who just handed more than $500,000 dollars to a reality show to buy her a house sight unseen. When she and her future husband finally lay eyes on their new home, they will think it’s ugly and outdated.
The show is Buying It Blind, a brand-new series from the creators of Lifetime’s Married at First Sight — where contestants skip the limos, cocktail parties, first dates, and wedding planning by simply introducing couples at the altar — and the latest entry in a growing genre where people allow reality-TV producers to make major life decisions for them. Call it Take My Life TV: Where earlier shows made minor life tweaks by giving neighbors and a designer control over one room in a person’s house on Trading Spaces, letting Gordon Ramsay change a menu on Kitchen Nightmares, or having life coach Iyanla Vanzant help with a relationship problem on Iyanla: Fix My Life, reality TV has found its way to much bigger life decisions than menus or wall coverings.
In an era of decision fatigue and the paralysis that comes from too many options, perhaps that’s no surprise. Letting others sift through the options is easier than doing all the research yourself. Still: buying a house? Choosing a life partner? That seems, well, nuts. Jennifer admits as much in Buying It Blind: “We’re absolutely crazy for going through this process.”
Both Buying It Blind and Married at First Sight are produced by Kinetic Content, whose founder and CEO Chris Coelen said that the shows attract participants whose anxiety about the process outweighs what they get out of it. “The idea of turning the decision like that over to experts seemed to make a lot of sense,” Coelen said. “It feels like a dream come true for people to say, Wow, I get to take all of the stress out of it and I just give it all over to somebody else.”
It’s astonishingly easy to convince people to sign up. When they were casting the first season of Married at First Sight, which had been a hit in Denmark but was unknown in the U.S., Coelen says, “We were surprised by how many people actually ended up wanting to do this. Then once we did it and it was out there on television, now we’ve had over 55,000 people apply.”
People send in casting tapes even though results have been mixed at best: Season one of Married at First Sight created two strong couples that are still together, but also one divorce. Seasons two through four all resulted in eventual divorces, and seasons five to seven have each had one of three couples stay married. There’s evidence that the process each couple goes through, from having access to therapists to watching their own behavior on TV, may help create stronger relationships. But it can also get dangerous: The second season ended with one woman filing an order of protection against her new husband, who allegedly threatened to kill her.
Of course, bad outcomes are possible with Tindr, Grindr, or Match, too. The attraction of what reality TV offers, Coelen says, emerges from the ability to put your fate in the hands of someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Participation in Buying It Blind comes with access to an experienced realtor, contractor, and interior designer, who work together on the purchase and renovation, while Married at First Sight’s experts — who pair strangers together, and also are available to counsel the newlyweds — have included a psychologist, a pastor and marriage counselor, a sexologist, and a sociologist.
Anna Kilinski, the realtor responsible for finding and securing homes for Buying It Blind’s couples, said the process was “nail-biting” and rife with “anxiety” for her, but ultimately just an extension of what she’s been doing for years. “What I realized during the process,” she said, “I felt really comfortable making decisions for people. Ultimately, I was doing it with their best interests in mind.” Kilinski looks at 40 to 60 properties per couple — there are six episodes, each following one couple — and consulted with the show’s other two experts, who renovate the houses after they are purchased. The couple’s budget has to cover all costs for the house and renovations, though the show is able to get some discounted materials thanks to product integration. And crucially, it also pays for the experts’ time and work.
Yet this reality-TV trend doesn’t always involve specialists who do their best to help. MTV has recently spawned How Far Is Tattoo Far?, an import from MTV UK, on which friends and family members choose tattoos for each other, without its new owner being able to see it until it’s complete. Usually the surprise ink is a way to exact revenge: In one episode, a man’s torso was tattooed with a cartoon Trump in a thong and provocative pose, while his cousin’s butt cheeks each acquired a tattoo of a nipple leaking milk. The reveal of those tattoos was less staggering than their reactions, though — they both found it to be quite a lark. The guy was okay with his cousin’s misogynistic mockery of a past sexual encounter with a lactating woman, and the other accepted his punishment: “I voted for the wrong person, and now I’m reminded of it every day,” he says in the episode.
It may be difficult to understand why someone would volunteer for this type of reality show, but it’s certainly easy to see why it makes for compelling TV. The reveal, when someone opens their eyes and learns what has been done — to them, to their house, to their future — is everything. HGTV has built an entire network on this moment, and Buying It Blind ups the drama by having two reveals as part of its format: First, the couple is shown the dilapidated house that’s been purchased, and then a half-hour later in TV time, they get to see the exquisite renovations by the show’s contractor and interior designer.
What’s most remarkable about the six home-buying couples on Buying It Blind is that they could have cheated but didn’t. Because each couple is legally buying their house, they have to participate in the closing process, and thus know the transaction price and could look up the address that’d been chosen for them. But none of them tried to see their new homes until cameras were focused on their blindfolded faces.
While it may be naïve to trust reality-show producers, Kinetic Content’s Coelen said he and his team earn trust because they “try to be as transparent as you can” and “tell them what to expect — there are certainly going to be ups and downs along the way.” (His company created Buying It Blind and first sold the format overseas, where it’s aired so far in Denmark, Australia, and France.)
Other shows may revel in screwing up someone’s life, but the producers behind Buying It Blind and Married at First Sight say they’re actually trying to improve their cast members’ lives. “The goal is to get people in a situation people are happy with,” Coelen said. “We don’t want to put anybody in a house that ultimately they’re really upset about.”
“I don’t really believe in gotcha TV,” he added. “We’re not manufacturing the stakes for these people. It does really affect their real lives in a big way.”
A decade ago, scholars Laurie Ouellette and James Hay argued in their book, Better Living Through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship, that reality TV has filled the void where our societal safety nets used to be, especially for those “unable (or unwilling) to care for themselves adequately in the current epoch of privatization and self-responsibilization.”
“It is a sign of the times that hundreds of thousands of individuals now apply directly to reality TV programs not only for medical needs, but also for decent housing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Town Haul, Mobile Home Disasters), tuition, and income assistance (The Scholar, Three Wishes), transportation (Pimp My Ride), disaster relief (Three Wishes, Home Edition), food, clothing, and other basic material needs,” they wrote.
As Buying It Blind realtor Kilinski sees it, those who don’t want to care for themselves but can afford help have also turned elsewhere. “Think about how many things we’ve started to outsource. Even our most precious things, like our children, we have nannies and child care and we put whoever in charge,” she said. “We’re so busy as individuals.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that more and more people want to hand over control to make decisions for them during the era of President Donald “I Alone Can Fix It” Trump. Whether they’re a wannabe autocrat or an expert hired by a reality show, it’s just easier to let someone else take charge. “While I think that could a feel a little overwhelming to some people to give up that kind of control, for some people it could come as a major sigh of relief,” Kilinski said. “Some people just don’t know how to make those decisions. It’s analysis paralysis.” The cure, at least for the more adventurous among us, is to let reality TV take the wheel.