An Ode to the Thirst Traps and Gay Baits of Early-2000s Dating Shows

Hot tub hookups! Twinks gone wild! The meanest kweens in the world! Let's get back on the “Next” bus for some trashy nostalgia.

Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series that’s really doubling down on the Dolly.

Everything old is new again! Socialism, Nazis, global pandemics. It’s like we never left the 20th century. Drawing on the retro vibes of yesteryear, MTV is rebooting Singled Out, the ’90s dating show that put future anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy on the map, for a younger, queerer, more attention-deficient generation.

With Bravo having already resurrected the early-2000s single commingle Blind Date, and considering I’m unable to go out on any actual dates myself, I got to thinking about all the gorgeous gay thirst afforded me by shows like Blind Date, ElimiDate, and MTV’s Next.

Back when I didn’t even know what a date was and when seeing gays on TV was still something of a novelty, these shows kept my teenage libido fully charged and my hankering for representation mildly sated.

Blind Date premiered in syndication in 1999, when I was in my freshman year of high school. The concept was simple enough: Two strangers were paired up and sent on an excruciatingly long date that was punctuated by obnoxious animations poking fun at how awkward things were going.

But if they—and we—were lucky, the evening would end in the hot tub.

In 2001, the syndicated dating reality show genre exploded with ElimiDate and Fifth Wheel, among other shows that thought two people going on one date wasn’t quite complicated enough. Now we had three to five folks holed up on a bus desperately seeking attention and possibly some affection, including a virtually endless supply of himbos to drool over.

While these shows were great for a weekly dose of beefcake, they were still overwhelmingly straight. Enter MTV’s Next, which debuted in 2005.

Riffing off ElimiDate’s and Fifth Wheel’s speed-dating approach, one lucky guy or gal got to choose from five potential mates, all stationed on a conspicuously branded bus. For every minute they lasted, the daters got one dollar. If the date went well, they had the option of either taking the money or going on a second date. Because who said romance was dead?!
 

The formulas might have been similar, but Next did what those other shows wouldn’t dare dream of doing and threw in some gays. The tackiest gays I had ever seen.

Come through, Evan, with your popped Lacoste collar, hemp flip-flops, and Abercrombie boot-cuts. He’s just one puka shell necklace away from embodying the uniform of the turn-of-the-millennium Basic Gay.

Evan had his choice of five gay teens who really needed a hug—try not to cringe at their intros as they extol the virtues of their packages. Meanwhile, Evan saying “next” to his first date because of his weak handshake is gay dating in a nutshell.

Of course, with a bunch of kweens in an enclosed space, it was only a matter of time before someone took their clothes off.

Twinks gone wild!

Sadly, Evan went home alone and the gays in the bus presumably blew each other. And in 2005, that was about as much as I could hope for from my gay television. Admittedly, it was a low bar.

And considering how whitewashed and problematic Next’s representation was—look no further than the crazy femme-shaming in this gay pile-on—it probably wasn’t the best thing for my young queer brain to absorb. But at least it was nice to see gays my age going on dates and actually having a good time—something I miss in this interminable isolation.

Who’d a thought I’d ever pine for puka shells?

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat