NEW YORK – Once upon a time, a man and woman met on national television, dated on national television and fell in love on national television.
And lived happily ever after.
Asleep yet? Of course you are. But you wouldn't be if it went like this:
Man meets woman. They go on televised date, reveal intimate personal details about themselves, get drunk, kiss in a hot tub — all before insulting and finally rejecting each other.
The days of the civilized, let's-make-a-match series like The Dating Game are gone. They've been replaced by more wicked, modern versions like Universal's Blind Date, MTV's Dismissed and ABC's The Bachelor.
"The appeal is controversy," said Emily Brody, 29, a single New Yorker who watches Blind Date and followed Temptation Island. "If nothing happens, it's boring. But if they're fighting and arguing and hooking up with each other, that's what draws people in."
Today's matchmaking shows are more edgy and spiteful — whether they involve one-on-one battles or groups competing for the attentions of a single man or woman.
"There are two things a dating show can provide: the romantic comedy of people getting together and the jungle of the nasty, brutish world of dating," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.
And let's face it. For most people it's far more interesting to watch the dark underbelly of singlehood than the bliss or boredom of a happy couple.
"My friends enjoy hearing more about my disaster dates than my good dates," said Kristen Bloom, 31, of Baltimore. The dating shows, she said, hone in on that human hunger for dirt and "try for either chemistry or conflict. It's a spin-off of Jerry Springer."
Blind Date, which first aired in 1999, is the forerunner of the current dating-show trend. Each episode highlights the juiciest segments of a videotaped blind date, as saucy "thought bubble" commentary, a la Pop-Up Video, appears on-screen along the way.
"We were able to take this genre to another level," said David Garfinkle, a Blind Date executive producer. "The reason our show stands out is because of the comedy … When people reveal their baggage, that’s when things get interesting."
MTV’s Dismissed has three people on a date together, with two of them competing for the third. At the end of every episode, the person in control dismisses one and keeps the other.
The newest such show — ABC's The Bachelor, which premiered last week — has 25 women competing for one man. Each episode closes with the bachelor presenting roses to the women he wants to have stay. The women he doesn't choose often leave in tears.
"When one man is involved with more than one woman, there's bound to be trouble," the narrator intoned during the show's pilot, while footage aired of the bachelor kissing different women. "It's a little too much for some women to handle. Each week, hearts will be broken."
The ABC effort has already appalled its fair share of viewers.
"On Blind Date, they're on equal footing — they can hate each other or like each other," said New York Post columnist Linda Stasi. "The Bachelor is 25 desperate, pathetic losers all vying for a possible hook-up with a pinhead. It's like a cheap whorehouse. They set people up to be on an unequal playing field."
Though some believe the shows deliberately pair up incompatible singles, Garfinkle denies that's the case on Blind Date.
"We actually try to find people who match up," he said, noting 20-25 percent of the couples go on a second date. "Most of the time, it's just not going to work out. That's real life. That's what happens when you set up your friends."
He also said the show does not aim to be malicious.
"When people go there, we'll go there," Garfinkle said. "We never try to be mean-spirited, but we do want to be edgy. That is part of our humor."
Though these dating shows fall into the "reality TV" category, some viewers say they see little resemblance to real life. But Garfinkle believes they're in the minority.
"We've all been in that situation," he said. "That's always something that will drive the show."
Other singles say they can identify with the misadventures that unfold during the on-screen get-togethers.
"I've had dates from hell, so I can relate," said Bloom.