MTV’s True Love or True Lies made a splash in the ocean of dating-adjacent reality shows last week, with its bold boast of the “most diverse cast ever to grace a British television show.” While reality series that aren’t purposefully romance-based have a long history of queer contestants (thinking back as far as beloved lesbian ex-nun Anna Nolan on the first series of Big Brother), it’s been notoriously tricky to hit on a formula for dating shows that encompasses a broad spectrum of genders and sexualities. With Courtney Act’s The Bi Life last year, and the phenomenon of the all-bi cast of Are You the One? and the queer couple getting engaged in Bachelor in Paradise over the summer, it seemed like the solution was to throw together a bunch of the most sexually fluid extroverts and wait for the inevitable exchange of sexual fluids.
True Love or True Lies, now in its second season, finds a way to mix queer, straight, cis and trans folks — but why would we even want to do that? Well, as Danny Dyer’s boorish voiceover reminds us every episode, it’s because “love comes in all shapes and sizes.” A worthy ethos, that MTV deems best demonstrated by whisking pairs of wannabe reality stars off to a fancy Maltese mansion to somehow prove they are “the perfect couple.”
The catch? An unknown number of the contestants aren’t couples at all — they are merely faking it in order to score a cash jackpot and probably because they’ve been watching too many
other MTV shows. Each episode, in a cultish-sounding “Love Ceremony,” cast-members vote out the couple they think are flagrant fibbers, or have just been pissing them off for flimsy personal reasons. It’s in everyone’s interest to spot the fraudsters though, as the prize money grows for every pair of liars booted off the show, until the last couple standing bags the swag.
The premise set some alarm bells ringing for me — after all, how much hate crime focuses on undermining the “realness” of trans and queer identities? While there’s always a chance someone may be faking more about their back-story than just their romance (in the first season, one proclaimed gay guy ‘fessed up his straightness after eviction), on the whole, the cast are genuine and sensitive when it comes to the serious stuff, from trans status to cancer diagnoses.
So, how do the contestants live up to MTV’s virtually impossible claim “to truly reflect society and represent everyone?” Among our eight starting couples we have Shadia and Alice, who self-describe as a “caramel African/Portuguese lesbian and Arab/Spanish bisexual couple with massive hair.” Then there’s Poppy and Parisa, who have a YouTube lesbian couple vibe, but moodier. Finally, there’s the label-defying relationship between drag queens Mahatma and non-binary trans person Timothie, who styles themself as a “hyper-sexualised, bearded Adele.” There’s a couple of gym-addicted gay/bi guys plus trans man Charlie, meaning that just over half of the initial cast claim a queer or trans identity.
That doesn’t stop the feeling that the diversity is a bit of a box-ticking exercise. I did wonder if the producers thought the cast was “trans enough” with Charlie and Timothie not to include any trans women (there was one last season). The cast is overwhelmingly white and, aside from Mahatma and Timothie, everyone conforms to the Instagram-ready looks and body shapes you’d expect from any other reality show.
This is pretty much where my gripes end though, because the simplicity of the concept married with every human’s innate Pavlovian response to dramatic pauses and slow-zoom reaction shots makes for a tremendously fun and binge-worthy show. We are effortlessly drawn into the contestants’ half-baked attempts to root out the liars, via the medium of staged conversation and a daily “Love Game” allegedly designed to demonstrate how well the pairs know each other, but in reality an excuse for gratuitous shots of everyone’s arses. (FYI my own game to determine genuine couples would involve giving them a pile of dirty dishes and a dishwasher then watching them argue over how to stack it properly.)
Watching people make snap judgements about other couples — who are essentially complete strangers — inevitably sparks questions about preconceived notions of what relationships look like. What struck me was how bamboozled some of the straight people were about their queer counterparts. They seemed to be obsessed about PDA and what they deemed too much (Shadia and Alice) or too little (Mahatma and Timothie). It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that people in different sorts of relationships might have an instinct to keep their affection on the down-low, although that might be a reasonable oversight considering these people were all flown to an exotic location to flaunt their alcohol-fuelled love on camera 24/7.
I feel like for all the diversity on display, most people are still cleaving to a hetero kind of idea of what romance looks like. One straight guy at least had the honesty to admit that he was bamboozled by the drag queen duo, as he had “never been around a relationship like that before.” I would think that any queer women watching would be making very accurate decisions about the female couples, based on evidence like Shadia and Alice sharing a dog and dramatically dumping their exes for each other, or Poppy and Parisa U-Hauling after two months. Conversely, I assume all the straight couples are fake because I can’t believe that anyone would choose that lifestyle unless there was a cash prize.
Ultimately, this show works because it revolves around an activity with universal appeal: speculating on other people’s relationships. If you’ve ever gossiped behind a friend’s back about how wrong they and their partner seem for each other, this is the show for you. If you’re in a relationship yourself, it’s hard not to indulge in some introspection about how you and your loved one(s) might hold up in such conditions. If you felt like you had to prove your love, it’s quite possible you’d end up like each of these couples, calculating your gestures of affection to be visible from every angle, and reducing your relationship history to a list of swot-uppable facts.
Certainly, my personal sketchiness about anniversary dates, a lack of “our song” and general failure to refer to my wife as babe/baby/babes every two seconds gave me grounds to suspect my own relationship is fake, and my wife to cry out “What even is a relationship?!”
As we approach the halfway point of the show, the queer rep is still holding up strong, so I think that’s one win for the much-vaunted cast diversity. What’s more, in a twist that was entirely expected for anyone who can count well enough to realise that eight couples can’t stretch a season out for twelve episodes, the mass of newbies dumped on the mansion on Friday night look set to maintain the queer quota, perhaps even tipping the racial balance to a fairer representation of the nation.
Even if that wasn’t the case, I have a horrible suspicion that I would still be tuning in for answers to the questions burning in my mind. Whose immaculate make-up will be the first to crack trying to sort the lovers from the liars? Will anyone ever point out the irony that none of our alleged “perfect couples” have been together more than a handful of months? Will we finally determine that love is a lie, but also not a lie, because the two are indistinguishable?!
If you’re looking for an excuse for some lighthearted escapism while pretending you’re analysing the constructs of human relationships, I heartily recommend you tune in too.