The reality show ‘Back In The Groove’ is at war with its premise
Always popular but typically trashy, reality dating shows sorely need gimmicks to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. And Back In The Groove has a pretty good one. It’s loosely based on, but never directly references, the 1998 film How Stella Got her Groove Back. Well, except for the fact that Taye Diggs, who played Angela Bassett’s love interest in the film, is the host. That’s about as loud a callback as you can sound.
Hulu’s Back In The Groove features three women in their early 40s at a fabulous resort in the Dominican Republic slowly whittling down a field of younger men ranging from the ages of 22 to 32 (the mean skews more to the latter), to find the dreamboat who will help them get their groove back. For awhile, this is pretty neat. But as I watched the semi-fake drama unfold, it felt like something was missing.
About halfway through the second episode of Back In The Groove, the contestant Luis inadvertently vocalizes the problem. He comments, to his competitors no less, that he just doesn’t feel any chemistry with any of the three women for whose affections they’re competing. Worse, Luis singles out two of them as simply not acting their age. Luis signed up for the show because he expected more maturity–that this is, indeed, the whole reason why he finds older women attractive in the first place.
Back In The Groove portrays Luis’s comments as insulting and disrespectful. Subsequent events in the second episode make this clear even if the immediate ones don’t. Yet I found myself oddly touched by the willingness of Luis to be honest in a unscripted reality TV backdrop that is, as we all know, never as realistic as that branding implies. Dating in the real world is hit-and-miss. It’s not fair to expect any man to find at least one woman out of three subjectively attractive, no matter how objectively attractive they may seem.
It’s not a character defect or act of disrespect to admit that. We can even see Luis struggling, moments before his humiliation, to come up with a compliment that sounds sincere despite the fact that he already knows he just doesn’t have the enthusiasm to stick around. He packed his suitcase even before the women gave him the boot. Yet as the concierge puts it, we’re clearly supposed to understand that Luis *bleep*ed up.
This aura of enforced positivity finally turned me against Back In The Groove. On a fundamental level, I realized, I agreed with Luis that the content of Back In The Groove is at odds with its concept. It’s not like the women involved aren’t mature. They’ve all been through a lot: Cancer, young motherhood, a brutal miscarriage. These are certainly women in need of a groove.
But what exactly does that even mean? The more I think about it, the less sense their actions make. Two of the women explicitly talk about a desire for children. At their age, this is something that’s a pretty immediate priority. They should be asking questions like, is this man ready to be a father? And yet they never do. Back In The Groove dedicates nearly every moment to the wish fulfillment aspect of the premise. The show is about having fun, getting the chemistry down perfectly, and being able to send a man home because you sufficiently dislike him. It’s about women feeling empowered to make all the choices.
This is all well and good, but very little of it does much to distinguish Back In The Groove from similar dating shows. Despite tacitly accepting that Luis is a bad person for being willing to admit that he thinks the leading ladies don’t act their age, the other men in Back In The Groove consistently refer to the women as girls. It’s subconscious. Most of them can’t even see these women as women. Their attraction comes off as fetishistic. Which is especially ironic, because the only contestant stupid enough to actually say out loud that his attraction to older women is fetishistic is also predictably booted off the island.
I mean sure, that guy probably deserves it, but his main crime is just having a different definition of fun than everyone else. I couldn’t help but laugh at the concierge blaming his lack of dress code for his poor performance, as if the men aren’t constantly looking for excuses to take off their shirts and show off their abs. And let’s face it, that’s the real core target audience for Back In The Groove: people who want to check out fantastic abs. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But Back In The Groove could have done a lot more with its genuinely intriguing gimmick, and I think it’s pretty immature that it didn’t.