On "Sexy Beasts," love isn't quite blind – but it's an entertainingly shallow heavy petting zoo

Welcome to the low-commitment dating distraction of the summer

Published July 21, 2021 7:12PM (EDT)

The Beaver on "Sexy Beasts" (Netflix)
The Beaver on "Sexy Beasts" (Netflix)

Fifteen months of pandemic lockdown isolation left all of us a little bit weirder. Now, as we start to venture beyond our homes, our desperation to return to so-called normalcy is counterbalanced by our realization that many of us have forgotten how to be around strangers. Our driving skills have rusted. Casual interactions with people we don't know may turn in to regrettable cases of oversharing.

Dating must be a special ordeal, but people had problems forging lasting relationships with each other long before COVID-19 mutated into the world. The timeless popularity of the romance reality genre speaks to this by selling the illusion of finding true love by gamifying the process.  

It's a lucrative racket even when none of the contestants are in it "for the right reasons," but none of it is particularly original. Netflix's "Sexy Beasts" cannot overcome that. But at least it adds a level of artistry to its mockery of modern courtship and has "Catastrophe" star Rob Delaney narrating the goofy proceedings.

Maybe that's a cynical way of summing up this six-episode speed dating binge dressed up with latex and body paint. Since this love connection game tries to emphasize personality over looks, its heart is in the right place. Since many of the players' terminal cluelessness or chronic cases of superficiality bleed through their masks, it is still dressing up unreasonable expectations in impressive special effects makeup.

"Sexy Beasts" is the natural answer to what happens when reality TV runs out of new ways to dress up old balls. Get your mind out of the gutter, I'm talking about pageants like "The Bachelor" and its progeny. That franchise's already-discriminatory image took an additional beating over our year of racial and social reckoning, but even without it we're long past believing in the legitimacy of its "happily ever after" proposal. Not even "Love Is Blind" and its love matches made from conversation are presumed to be durable and real. 

Still, we yearn for true connection with other people. We also love ridiculous, batsh*t TV premises, hence this modern version of "The Dating Game," except for furries.

Each episode features either three women competing to win one guy's affections, or three dudes campaigning to ensnare the heart of a single lady. The catch is that everyone's features are completely obscured under layers of prosthetics and cosmetics that make them look like a forest creature, a farm animal or a fantasy figure.

A model looking for a guy who loves her for who she is on the inside dons a (decidedly unsexy) demon face and goes on dates with a baboon, a mouse and a guy glued up to look like a statue.

A lab technician and self-described "ass man" hides behind beaver teeth and a head covered in fur as he peruses a trio of women transformed into a pixie, a zombie and a leopard.

A lady done up as a somewhat anatomically correct dolphin caresses the dorsal fin on the back of her skull and deals with jokes about the blowhole on her forehead.

Another man seeking women meets his potential dates disguised as a wolf.  Out of the three men positioned as the main catch, he fares the best in the masking department; the remaining lad is hidden underneath a rooster's beak, feathers and flaming red wattles. Between the wolf, the beaver and the cock, one wonders what the "Sexy Beasts" makeup team are saying about men in the dating scene through their work. Not for long, but it may cross your mind.

But the main appeal of "Sexy Beasts" nests in the challenge of making a love match through personalities as opposed to looks, although on a show like this you can rest assured that nobody's a complete uggo under all that paint. As for what the show reveals about inner beauty, we have questions.

Obviously the casting producers selected these contenders for their gigantic personas. In doing so, they've paired the truism concerning love being blind with the notion that losing one sense heightens the others. So rather than focusing on how attractive a couple looks together, we're made to listen to how each person speaks to one another, or over one another, which is enlightening. For the audience, not necessarily the people on the dates.

Our beaver, for example, forgoes the intent of the series by announcing to the contestant pool that he likes one woman's body more than the others. On their date, when she asks him whether he'd still be with her if she gained significant weight, the beaver stammers awkwardly and looks to the only other guy in the room, the venue's host, for guidance.  That man offers none, leaving our industrious semiaquatic rodent to slowly drown.

But for the most part, everyone navigates each other's strange appearance with a good sense of humor while the audience delights in the absolute stupidity of it all. We all say regrettably dumb things on first dates, but when those blurts are made by a bipedal rhino who holds forth on his proficiency in "sex kung fu" a person may wonder why and how the human race manages to continue.

Despite this, "Sexy Beasts" may be the most harmless, commitment-free dating reality show out there. All shows like this attempt to play out some version of a Cinderella fairy tale. This one presents itself as nothing more than algorithmically calculated entertainment. It may be built upon the notion of "it's what inside that counts," but it comes off as the well-mannered issue of a drunken hookup between the makeup reality competition show "Face Off" and MTV's "Singled Out."

The real stars of this show are the makeup effects specialists, who conceal each person's looks completely enough to make the reveals actually exciting.

Silver medals go to the casting directors, who defied the imaginary difficulties claimed by the producers of "The Bachelor" and managed to find several Black men to feature along with other participants of color. That provides its own subtle commentary on the whiteness of dating and romance reality shows, actually, in presenting an inclusive contestant pool in a dating show where looks are removed from the equation. (Then again, and at the risk of spoiling a few details, there are a lot of blondes underneath those animal and monster masks, proving that producers weren't trying to spark a revolution here.)

That's definitely overthinking this. None of the contenders spend enough time together for a reasonable person to expect any couple to make it, regardless of panda woman's breathless expectation that she would find her husband among one of the three masked strangers before her, one of whom sports a buffalo's head.

But you may find yourself wondering how each can drink cocktails, let alone share kisses through their false snouts and beaks. Everyone manages the former, and a few lip synch their way through the latter, adjusting to overcome layers of obstacles otherwise preventing a physical connection. Maybe such interludes invite us to ponder the concept of animal attraction or even animal companionship in these times.

Mostly they underline what a long, strange and lonely pandemic it's been.

"Sexy Beasts" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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