The 80s might have been the much-lamented for golden age for music videos on MTV, but the mid-aughts were the channel’s golden age of something more exploitative, but equally entertaining: short-form reality dating shows with unhinged premises.
Starting in the mid-90s, MTV started mass-producing these cheaply-made, short reality dating TV shows. None lasted for more than a year or two, but it was enough time for many to be entered into the canon of beautiful cringe TV that falls somewhere between real and scripted, and mostly just leaves you simultaneous forgetting what you just watched, and wanting more.
Coming off the network’s 40th anniversary, we break down some of the wildest reality dating shows to ever be on the network. Because believe it or not, they used to have more diverse programming than their current 24/7 block of Ridiculousness! Fall down the cringe rabbit hole, below.
1. Singled Out (1995-1998)
MTV’s first-ever dating reality TV series featured 50 (not a typo!) singles competing for a date with one contestant, which is sadly similar to being single in your late 20s. Of the era icon Jenny McCarthy originally hosted the show, followed by Carmen Electra, if that gives you an idea of how this was kind of a big deal. It also enjoyed a brief resurgence, with a YouTube series in 2018 and a planned Quibi series in 2020 (RIP). Basically, the premise is that 50 people get widdled down to one person, based on a series of questions about physical attributes, interests, etc. There’s also something about where you can “dump” someone and they wear a toilet seat around their neck, which, yikes.
2. DisMissed (2001)
A contestant takes two people on a date and has to send one of them home, which is a whole type of date used in the Bachelor for the sole purpose of chaos. If only IRL dating was as simple as saying, “You are dismissed.”
3. TailDaters (2002-2003)
Friends and family of the people going on a date get to hang out in a “stakeout bus” and provide live, judgmental commentary on a date, which is all I ever want to do when my friends go on dates. Bonus points for some wild graphics that show each person’s face in a tiny computer. (Did they secretly invent Zoom?)
4. Room Raiders (2003-2009)
In this reality dating show that actually wasn’t that bad of an idea, three people have their rooms inspected by a single person, who snoops through their stuff to see who they’re most attracted to based on objects in their room, cleanliness, whether or not the bed is made, etc. Then, because justice must be served, the people whose rooms were raided get to raid the single person’s room. Finally, the raider confronts the three contestants and decides who they want to date. Bonus points for including an early Zac Efron cameo in 2005 as the special guest star from the WB show Summerland.
5. Date My Mom (2004-2006)
An 18 to 24-year-old goes on three separate dates with three separate moms who try to convince the single person to date their son or daughter. Each episode ends in an elaborate beachfront finale where the dater explains who they are and aren’t going to date, and why. Yes, it’s as creepy as it sounds!
6. Next (2005-2008)
With a staggering 288 episodes, Next walked so Tinder could run. The premise is simple: A contestant goes on three blind dates, and can say “next” at any point to abruptly end the date. The contestant introductions were historic, and each person aired out their quirks and dirty laundry in three very confusing bullet points. Oh, and a dark detail is the dater racks up $1 for every minute the date lasts, and they walk away with that amount. Time is money — ever heard of it? Sometimes, someone walks off the bus and the contestant immediately says “next,” prepping an entire generation for the idea of swiping left.
7. Score (2005-2006)
Only ten episodes exist of this absolutely unhinged show for which we only have the American Idol era to blame, where aspiring songwriters work with Ryan Cabrera to write songs for a person’s affection. The poor soul in question listens to each original song blindly and then decides who they want to date. MTV wanted people to suffer!
8. Parental Control (2006-2010)
The plot of this comparatively long-running MTV dating show just makes sense: Parents don’t like their daughter’s boyfriend, so they choose three other dudes for her to date, watch the dates live on video and then hope she dumps the original, mediocre boyfriend. A tale as old as time!
9. A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila (2007)
In what was likely the first MTV dating show to feature openly LGBTQ+ contestants as part of the plot, A Shot At Love was cable’s bisexual solution to The Bachelor. Ten men and ten women vied for Tila’s heart, but unfortunately, she and the winner did not live happily ever after. Instead, he posted on MySpace that she had never contacted him and she torpedoed her own career by expressing support for Adolf Hitler — dark on all counts.
10. Exposed (2007-2008)
The successor to Next, Exposed revolves around lie detector software, because trust is the foundation of any good relationship. A friend of the contestant sits in a truck and monitors the date, while the dater asks two potential mates questions. Everything they say is “run through a lie detector,” and the friend tells the contestant if the answer was true or false. We’re not ones to pay attention to reviews of MTV reality dating shows, but one reviewer apparently called it “an abomination.”
11. Is She Really Going Out With Him? (2009-2010)
MTV attempted to take on larger sociological trends, specifically that women often date men who are less attractive than them, with this show that highlights relationships with mediocre dudes, and by the end, the woman has to choose whether she wants to still be with him or not. So much to unpack here, but all you really need to know is that Snooki was in an episode before her Jersey Shore fame.