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22 July 2021

The only thing we can learn from Sexy Beasts is that we are living in the era of Stupid TV

Netflix’s new absurdist blind dating show is genuinely the worst thing I’ve ever seen – unfortunately, it’s not an anomaly. 

By Emily Bootle

Do you remember where you were when you first saw the Cats trailer? When the image of a rotund, feline, top-hat beclad James Corden first jolted through your synapses; when the trauma of the furry mounds on the lady-cats’ chests was implanted in your visual cortex and then lodged in your long-term memory? Of course you do. I’m only sorry that if there is any room left in your mental drawer marked “horrible”, that is where you will inevitably store fragments of Netflix’s new show Sexy Beasts.

Sexy Beasts is not, unfortunately, a serialised version of the gangster movie Sexy Beast (2000); Ben Kingsley does not even make a cameo. It is essentially a blind dating show: one person goes on three dates, and then chooses a winner at the end. It is Cats-adjacent in its use of moderately disturbing facial prosthetics, which turns it into an even blinder dating show: every contestant is disguised in an invariably repulsive neck-up costume – not sexy Halloween but full-scale 1970s sci-fi – so all judgements must be made on personality alone. Uber-blind dating has been successful for several TV channels in recent years, as is its reverse: Netflix’s 2020 breakout hit Love is Blind involves marrying someone you have never met, while on Channel 4’s Naked Attraction, contestants’ potential dates are revealed gradually from the feet up, naked, and assessed at every body part. Sexy Beasts’ particular iteration of the genre makes important points such as: don’t judge a book by its moulded silicon robot-shaped cover! Thought it would be impossible to fancy a mandrill? Think again!

[See also: Alun Cochrane asks: since when was “centrist dad” an insult?]

Each episode is exactly the same. There is a speed-dating stage in a bar, before one “beast” (yuck) is eliminated and two additional, more intrepid dates ensue. A British man disfigured to look like a statue and a 21-year-old model from New York disguised as Beelzebub get foot massages. A muscular beaver and an overconfident cheetah shoot clay pigeons. An alien and a bull get dumped, and an anaemic-looking pink-eyed mouse with a Brummie accent shows his true colours as a sore loser. It’s like being on a stag do with real-life versions of the Bake-Off cake busts. Attempts at beastly snogs made me physically recoil from my screen. At every juncture, every big reveal (which, by the way, are extremely boring after the first episode, when you realise that every single contestant is good-looking), I thought to myself: this is genuinely the worst television I have ever seen.

Yet what differentiates Sexy Beasts from, say, Cats (also some of the worst cinema I have ever seen, though at least funny in its awfulness) is that the absurdity is not accidental: it is the whole point of the show. It is part of a wave of deliberately stupid telly, which professes to do nothing but make people quote-tweet the trailer saying “I want some of what they’re having [crying laughing emoji]”. In the 2000s and 2010s, the Channel-4 shock-factor was shaming people for eating too much and shitting in the wrong way, or having any combination of a badly behaved dog, a particularly grimy cooker or a mental illness. Sexy Beasts had an initial run on BBC3 in 2014 and was swiftly cancelled, not fulfilling any of these criteria. Now, following a revolution of socio-political awareness, the brief for filler TV seems to have moved on from “horrifically offensive” to “as ridiculous as possible”.

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“Disguise them in an oversized costume and then make them take off the costume at the end, thus creating a shocking juxtaposition between the two states and blowing the mind of the viewers, who know that this is the entire premise of the programme but surely will never tire of it!” said the world’s TV execs in unison. This is the defining principle of not only Sexy Beasts but also The Masked Singer, in which celebrities dress up in elaborate disguises (Katherine Jenkins became an octopus, Joss Stone a sausage) and sing for a panel of other celebrities, or The Masked Dancer, which is exactly the same, but with dancing. Both shows involve a stage full of lurid colours and flashing lights and costumes the size of football mascots with the disturbing energy of The Wicker Man. In June this year, the Olympic gymnast Louis Smith won The Masked Dancer for his routine, for which he was somehow dressed as… a car wash.

[See also: ITV’s Professor T is a lockdown nightmare gone wrong]

Of course, there is also stupid TV where nobody involved is masked: in recent years ITV2 has brought us variations on the classic “minor celebrities making fools of themselves” genre, from Celebrity Juice, which involves various innuendo-based quizzes, unglamorous apparatus and messy eating challenges, to Celebrity Karaoke Club, which seems mainly to be about getting drunk and falling over. Stupid TV also finds its way into non stupid TV, or at least TV that is stupid in a different way: on Love Island, interspersed with the aspirational glamour and luxury of the villa are humiliating “challenges” containing food fights and large amounts of gunge.

How, in a world where TV has overtaken the novel as the prevailing narrative form, is there still a market for this diabolic drivel? Surely the natural conclusion to reaching the end of The Sopranos mid-pandemic is not to move on to a show about an upsettingly shaped dolphin – complete with blowhole – going bowling with a globular-headed mantis; pretend to be surprised when every hideous chrysalis dissolves to reveal a ridiculously attractive butterfly (that’s a metaphor, by the way, not another disgusting facet of the show); and then hear them all gush about each other’s hotness? It’s enough to make you hope all of it, from Sexy Beasts to The Masked Dancer, is a nasty dream – although I dread to think what Carl Jung would have to say about your subconscious conjuring a beaver who is also “an ass man”, or a former member of Take That doing a dance routine on national television dressed as a zip.

[See also: There may be little left to say about Love Island – but what does it say about us?]