Love to hate them: Dating show 'villains' keep shows interesting

The third season of Netflix reality dating show “Single’s Inferno” set a record for being viewed over 70 million hours since its release on Dec. 9. [NETFLIX]

In the sea of reality dating shows, the third season of “Single’s Inferno” is reaping more handsome results than ever before thanks to "villain" Lee Gwan-hee, one of the male cast members.

In one of the 11 episodes released on Netflix last month, another cast member asks Lee who he is interested in the most among his female counterparts. Sitting in a group, instead of saying the names of the women he finds attractive, Lee pointed his fingers and said, “This one, that one, and this one.”

Watching the footage at a studio, Lee Da-hee, one of the show hosts, said “That doesn’t look good for him.” Fellow host Kyuhyun said, “That’s very disrespectful.”

After its first season aired in 2021, “Single’s Inferno” has become a representative dating show, with the third season turning out to be an even bigger hit compared to the first two seasons. In the first week of the latest season, the show landed on at No. 4 on the non-English global top 10 list on Netflix. The show has also been viewed over 70 million hours cumulatively. The two previous seasons were viewed less than 60 million hours. This popularity boom is credited much to the advent of Lee.

The reality dating show “I am Solo” on SBS Plus and ENA recorded the highest viewership ratings in the history of the show on Sept. 27 when it featured the "villains" above. [SBS PLUS, ENA]

These so-called villains have become an integral element of reality dating shows. Once a certain cast member’s impolite remarks or behavior go viral, they bring organic publicity to the show. Another example can be found in reality dating show “I am Solo” on SBS Plus and ENA. After its launch in 2021, the show’s viewership ratings soared whenever it had strong villain-type cast members. These people become the talk of the town and are widely covered by online media.

In an episode on the show’s 16th season, aired on Sept. 27, when two of the show’s cast argued with one another, the show recorded 4.1 percent viewership ratings, the highest in the history of the show.

“Reality dating shows are no longer a passing trend, but have settled down as a genre because dating and reality shows are two subjects that people are most interested in,” culture critic Ha Jae-geun said. “With more streaming platforms, there is more demand for content than ever before. In this situation, [reality dating shows] are a safe bet because you don't have to shell out a lot for production costs.

“But the shows need to be differentiated, so they have been elaborately recruiting their cast by sorting cast hopefuls into more detailed groups,” he added.

A still from the third season of “Transit Love,” in which split couples get together to find new love. [TVING]

The main focus of reality shows in the past was only on young men and women, but not anymore. “Transit Love” on Tving brings together groups of now-split couples. Teenagers find love in “Nineteen to Twenty” on Netflix and “Boys and Girls Dating” on Tving. Old classmates are reunited in hopes of finding romance in “Alumni Lovers” on MBC. “Love After Divorce” on MBN only has divorcees.

By featuring more diverse people, each individual’s characteristics and stories unfold, making the shows more realistic.

Additionally, cameras are rolling 24/7, enabling the shows to broadcast candid interactions of the cast. Show villains inevitably get more screen time.

“There are ups and downs in romantic relationships. If it's always good, it’s boring — and that kind of relationship doesn’t even exist in reality,” culture critic Kim Seong-su said. “Villains cause trouble, and the trouble adds and maximizes the reality of the dating shows.”

“Single’s Inferno” producer Kim Jae-won said during interviews with the local press, “I couldn’t believe what I heard on the set,” regarding the buzz Lee ignited after referring to the women as “this one, that one, and this one.”

“I couldn’t edit the part out, though. It was impolite of him saying so, but he said that to express his interest toward some of them. If it was edited out, the viewers wouldn’t understand why the women were so mad.

“After the comment, I thought Lee would have little presence on the show [because they would give him the cold shoulder], but he ended up still gaining the hearts of the females one by one. It was interesting to see him rising from the ashes like a phoenix,” Kim added.

Hosts of reality dating shows add commentary such as criticizing cast members for their inappropriate remarks or behaviors. [SBS PLUS, ENA]

A group of show hosts, who watch the footage of the cast at a studio together, add their own commentary, reacting to the cast. They make sharp comments about people who cross the line.

Singer-rapper Defconn, one of the hosts for “I am Solo,” recently said “I need a tranquilizer” while watching a recent episode of the show because he couldn't believe how one of the male cast members was acting.

“TV shows refrain from being too critical. They tend to sugarcoat what they show on the screen. But now is a time when viewers post reviews of shows they are watching on a real-time basis and analyze the shows with no filters on YouTube. You need to go with the flow," Ha said.

“When the hosts respond to situations appropriately and represent viewers’ thoughts, they help viewers get more immersed in the show.”

Villains, however, could get in the way of viewers who want to feel the romance, not anger and frustration. So why do people keep watching the shows even with the villains?

Hosts of the third season of the reality dating show “Single’s Inferno”

“Viewers often identify themselves with the cast of reality dating shows. That’s a very important element of the show. They feel satisfied and excited while watching the cast,” Lim Myung-ho, a professor of psychology at Dankook University, said. “But once a villains appears, the viewers relate to the story even more because all the disagreements between the villain and the other cast are probable, something that can happen in their own lives.

“The viewers also look back on [their behaviors and words] through the villains. That’s how they consume reality dating shows.”