Other than detective drama, there may be no hotter genre of television programs right now than the dating show. And this new breed is a far leap from The Dating Game.

On Blind Date, cameras follow a couple on their first date while the producers make sharp criticisms. On Elimidate, a dater goes out on the town with a pack of potentials and dumps them one by one. Meet My Folks lets parents choose a weekend fling for their kid, and Extreme Dating brings a person's ex-boyfriends or girlfriends along on a first date. There are several others airing now and networks are currently producing a handful more.

As the shows have become increasingly outrageous (and popular), a new sub-genre has developed: the marriage show. Tonight is the finale of the first season of The Bachelorette, in which one woman selects her perfect mate from 25 hopefuls.

Christianity Today put together a group of Christian singles to discuss this shift in dating shows and how Christians can evaluate them.

LaTonya Taylor, 23, Campus Life assistant editor, recently wrote "Love As Seen on TV" for the Christian teens magazine.

Camerin Courtney, 31, senior associate editor for Today's Christian Woman, wrote the book Table for One: The Savvy Girl's Guide to Singleness (Fleming H. Revell). She also edits CT's online Singles Channel.

Max Hsu, 33, is the founder of the rock band Superchic[k], which often sings about purity, self-worth, and dating.

Todd Hertz, 26, online assistant editor for CT, moderated the panel.

What is the dating show scene right now?

LaTonya: The number of dating shows and their popularity right now indicates that we've applied our microwave and fast food culture to relationships. We want to date a large number of people and to be allowed to whittle them down quickly. It is very business-like.

You get in here, you tell me what you got, you put on your dog-and-pony show and you get in the hot tub, or you're cut from the team.

Todd: What underlies that process is obviously sex. Most of these dating shows today like Blind Date don't hide the fact that people are there to get hooked up. On the Blind Date website, one of the main page headlines is "Getting any?"

It is always a given assumption on programs from Meet My Folks to Extreme Dating that these people are looking for casual sex, not love. However, now we have a new model of shows that has raised the stakes to finding a spouse. But even there, it is clear that sex is key in finding who is "right."

Camerin: Right, the reality dating show milieu has taken a turn from being just about dating to being about marriage. There's this whole new batch of shows including Joe Millionaire, Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette. [Fox will soon debut Married by America, in which viewers prearrange a marriage.] Suddenly, this genre is seemingly about people wanting to find a life partner.

Article continues below

Todd: Why is that?

Camerin: Statistics show that people are getting married later and later, so maybe there's a whole generation still looking for love and now are getting more serious about it. There's a proliferation of books on finding a spouse.

We as a culture haven't been taught how to find somebody who's really a good partner for us. So this whole generation is looking for love but isn't sure where and how to look.

LaTonya: We have been taught that love is a formula. We subconsciously adopt the myth that buying flowers, romantic trips, chocolates, and stuffed animals make the relationship. It becomes a game to winning someone, so these shows were only natural.

Dating is not about finding the person who has it all together. It shouldn't be about Mr. Right. It's about Mr. Right for me, and I'm Ms. Right for him. We're so flawed, we're so grouchy, and some of us chew with our mouths open. But God uses us somehow in spite of our brokenness and can do that in the context of marriage.

Camerin: Nobody on any of these shows is talking about compatibility. Nobody asks Joe Millionaire what he's done in life or about his history. It is more about finding somebody who meets all these expectations than it is about finding one who matches up with what we have to offer.

Our divorce rate really backs that up. We're not choosing well. These shows show why the divorce rate is higher. They only perpetuate the unwise choices and the unwise factors on which we base such a huge decision.

What culture do these marriage shows reflect or create themselves?

LaTonya: These shows indicate that we all want romance. There's still this desire to be swept off of your feet. But I think people are assuming they can bypass the process of getting to know people individually over time. Perhaps they think they're doing themselves some sort of service and that they can have it all and have it quickly.

But it ends up being false. Out of the two Bachelor shows, neither has resulted in a lasting engagement. After going through these 25 people, all the screening to find this one, these people still find out later that it doesn't work in real life.

Article continues below

Camerin: People on these shows become so emotionally invested in such a short period of time. They look so crushed and devastated when they're taken off the show. It is as if they were in love. It just makes you wonder what they've invested in. How much do they really know this person? Most of this occurs over a couple of weeks and in group settings. To make a personal one-on-one connection seems really difficult in that sort of a setting.

Todd: The reaction of people cut from The Bachelor or Bachelorette reminds me a lot of the reaction of performers cut from American Idol. This is like a big audition. Their grief isn't from love lost. It's rejection.

Camerin: The fact that we call these reality shows is such a misnomer because they are creating this unreality. These people aren't faced with the day-to-day of having to pay bills and take out the trash. They're not seeing Trista [from The Bachelorette] when she's PMSing, crabby, or has had a bad hair day. A lot of these people are falling for this ideal that's being created. It's all set in this wonderful, dreamy setting. Who wouldn't fall in love?

Max: Any time you go on a date with a guy, it is a little bit unreal. The first couple of dates he's going to be putting his best foot forward. The question is whether it works in the reality of day-to-day.

Are there dangers in the portrayal of love in these shows?

LaTonya: This can really affect the way we view relationships by causing us to become cynical. If you watch these shows you might get the impression that folks aren't out there finding real love. But they are.

Camerin: I wonder if these shows make Christian singles feel even more freakish that they're not dating, that they're not having sex, and that they're not doing the things that are givens on these shows. You get desensitized to people having sex in the process of dating. This is on all TV shows, but this is supposed to be real. We should be appalled and turn this stuff off. I don't want to get to the place where, God have mercy, I go out on a date, and this infiltrates my thinking.

Max: I look at these shows a lot like the WWF: it's entertaining but it's not real. But the thing that concerns me is that this replaces real social groups. The danger here is when you start to get sucked into these things and it's the illusion of a social group. This is time that you could spend living or meeting somebody new. There is a danger and a temptation of living vicariously through these things. It is a little destructive for me, because I sit there and go, "That's totally what I thought about women. I'm not going to invest in a relationship because look how they act!"

Article continues below

Todd: These shows can make a Christian single think, "Man, I'm the only one who has these values." It can be depressing. It can also be sad when you see people who are living this way. It makes you feel bad that the myth of casual sex and shallow intimacy has been passed along.

A PAX TV Bachelor?

Max: If we are not happy with these shows, then what would an episode of The Christian Bachelor look like?

Camerin: I don't know if it would be much different minus the sex. Any time a really nice, put-together Christian guy (which is a rare breed in Christian circles) comes into a circle of single people, it's kind of like The Bachelor. It's like all the women are vying for his attention.

Todd: In a way, a show like The Bachelor resembles the Christian concept of group dating—you have several people there who could be potentials and you weigh them out. But one difference is that group dating is more like window shopping where you feel out what works for you, what doesn't, and you learn what you want in a person.

But these current marriage shows are more akin to test driving. You have all these quick, mini-relationships to see how they go. You are kissing the potentials, being intimate, sharing yourself, and actually being in a relationship with several people at once to see which one wins out.

Camerin:  That mirrors our culture. People live together before they get married, they're sleeping together, they're seeing if it would work. What floors me about the Bachelor shows is that it all happens with several partners at once. I'd hope in a Christian version there would be less making out with more than one person. I'd like to think that there's more meaning in these intimate things than what we're seeing on these shows.

Max: I wonder why we would watch these shows at all, since they seem to differ so much from our experience.

Camerin: Just from some of the responses I've gotten from the Singles Channel recently, I think a lot of Christians aren't dating. And so, again, to call this a reality show is kind of laughable, because most of the Christians singles I know aren't dating period—let alone getting to whittle down all these eligible potential people. So maybe this is a way in which they vicariously see what it's like.