Love Is Blind’s season four reunion broke the internet. Netflix promised a livestream, and millions waited up past bedtime to see the cast confirm or deny the edit. Just two days earlier, we’d watched four ¬couples say I do or I don’t at four different weddings staged inside the same tent, each one its own nuanced shade of basic. Now, we were ready to see the cast of husbands, wives, and exes dish and squabble on a plush soundstage, their aspects solemn and ruminative, their hair and makeup glam. The reunion never went live, but when Netflix posted a recording of it the next day, we weren’t disappointed. These were the sober faces of people who’d watched their words and actions transformed into narrative and aired worldwide. They’d fallen in love, proposed to each other, and wed (or broken up) over a period of approximately two months, and then, a year later, they got to obsess with the rest of us over the version of their ecstasies and agonies that made it to streaming.

Like all reality television, Love Is Blind (LIB) relies on a set of recurrent protocols to construct its signature reality. The show presents itself as an experiment designed to answer the question, is love blind? To find out anew each season, producers sequester by gender a multicultural group of men and women and put them through a grueling and controversial romantic bootcamp.

As a contestant, you spend the first ten days of filming going on aggressively hetero dates with your counterparts in “the pods,” LIB’s unique set. You enter a tiny room, and your date enters another. Between you hangs a thin, opaque scrim, lit in muted LED. In your pod, you can hear your date, but you can’t see them. You’re concealed from one another so that—paradoxically—you can build intimacy. You still have to dress up, but that’s for the cameras. Isolated on your side of the wall, you sit or pace or make yourself a cocktail while you whisper all your secrets. If things go well, and you make a strong enough connection with someone you’ve never seen, you can propose. (Proposals are breathless and creepy and anticlimactic. With no one there to embrace, you have to hug yourself, fall to your knees, raise your eyes to the ceiling. This is what it must be like to welcome Jesus into your heart.) Only then do you get to meet your beloved, who is revealed to you in the show’s most dramatic sequence, your two silhouettes thrown up against enormous screens on either end of a runway. When the screens fall away, you see your beloved at last, and you move toward them, eagerly, haltingly, in shock or joy. Having finally embraced, you and your betrothed travel with a cohort of other engaged couples to a honeymoon destination, Mexico or California, where you celebrate your engagement at the same time as you sweat the other girls or boys you dated, but didn’t commit to, in the pods. In the end, the show moves like a locomotive toward its final destination, the altar. There, before an audience of friends, family, and Netflix viewers, you must either speak the performative words or walk away.

The reunion episode, now a staple of the broader reality dating genre, affirms LIB’s realities by revisiting their highlights and extending their timelines. This season’s substantiates the fairy-tale romance producers dreamed up for Tiffany and Brett, for instance, cameras pulling in close as they cuddle up on a loveseat, still happily married. The reunion also problematizes those realities in exciting ways, giving a hearing to contestants’ rival narratives and unheard rationalizations. Chelsea and Kwame are still married, too, we find, and they speak out together against production’s insistence that he was never that into her.

At the reunion, in other words, we get a glimpse at life “beyond the edit,” as Bliss puts it. This prospect is especially tantalizing for viewers of Love Is Blind because the show’s formula works by proliferating several competing actualities and setting them against each other. By forcing contestants to synthesize a narrative across conflicting domains of meaning, LIB enacts a formal procedure familiar to many of us today. Online and IRL, we’re expected to craft mobile identities and relationships that can move between the spheres we inhabit. The show models this imperative, putting it in the service of a particularly American brand of love, which longs to be, in its ideal form, metaphysical, divorced from history and the material conditions that shape us.

Wedding someone you fell for in the pods is how you prove that love is blind. According to LIB creator Chris Coelen, these lush, trendy spaces (think textured throws, velvet chaise lounges, tufted ottomans from TJ Maxx) actually suspend the rules of time and space. They open up the possibility for a transcendental love the show argues most of us can no longer access on our own. Coelen says that contestants come to know other pod-mates better than they know their best mates, due to the compressed and analog nature of their interactions. Cut off from what makes you a person—from your job, your loved ones, and, most importantly, from your phone—time contracts and connections intensify. This love is blind, not only because it must emerge before any contestant can put a face or a body to it, but also because it is not tethered to any marker of identity or context—race, class, place, and so on.

Love Is Blind thus operates by first constructing for its lovers a reality within a reality within a reality, a space it claims is truer than the world beyond. We can recognize this move from the poetic and philosophical history of love. At a distance, contestants participate in the process of romantic idealization, familiar from Dante to Stendhal to Sylvia Plath. Protected from the reality of the beloved, the lover’s imagination goes to work, transforming their object into the ideal partner, investing the prospect of union, physical or emotional, with dreams of ultimate satisfaction. While this mode of idealization flounders on the rocks of the real, remoteness intensifies it and imbues the beloved with an almost divine power. LIB makes a vague callback to courtly love, the medieval mode of romance between a knight and a married lady, carried out at a distance inside a massive stone enclosure. Courtly love is erotic, but it’s destined to go unconsummated. Instead, it connects souls, trading on that essential unit of selfhood believed to rise above the earthly exigencies that might plague or deform it. Coelen’s blind love (as opposed, say, to Tom Waits’s) adapts this tradition: life in the pods is supposed to give contestants access to the authentic self, both their beloved’s and their own.

LIB’s first reality, then, is basically metaphysical, maybe pseudo-Platonic, contingent as it is upon turning from the flesh and its degraded concerns toward something higher. And yet, the show can’t tarry long in the region of Platonism. Its second reality is transitional, dialectical. After proposing to each other, contestants don’t return home to sink or swim on the strength of their feelings in their previous realities. This, as we see when party girl Micah visits environmental scientist Paul’s spare flat in season four, might snip too quickly transcendence’s tenuous threads. Instead, the betrothed fly to a honeymoon dream space. Sunny, anonymous resorts extend the isolating experience of the pods, while adding to it the sensuous. Here, LIB rips off the band aid of chastity. The couples, thrust together in paradisial climes, must sleep in the same bed (or find a couch) and decide whether or not to consummate their promises. Shooting on location, LIB walks a razor’s edge between teasing us with lascivious shots of foreplay (fingers gripping an ass, lips pressing in a pool) and treating sex as a sanctified and private act between husband and wife.

This space is not as safe as it seems, and that’s what makes it exciting. Not only are the couples putting a face, an appendage, an orifice, to the voices and stories they came to love outside of time. They are also checking out the other contestants, with some of whom they also connected in the pods. The moment of regret when faced with an “absolute smoke show,” as Bartise put it in when he saw Raven by the pool in season three, has become one of LIB’s recognizable notes. At least one unlucky fiancé per season sees the tight or thin or rippling bod of someone else they might have loved, and they question their choices—out loud. The metaphysical is under siege in the honeymoon phase, ready to be brought down to earth by the actuality of flesh and blood. The tension between reality and imagination produces enough drama to fuel the rest of the episodes.

If a couple survives paradise—and in season four, Zack and Irina do not, yielding, contra haters, some of the show’s realest conversation yet—the battle over what constitutes reality only intensifies. The show constructs its third reality when contestants return to their home cities and move in together (so far, producers have filmed seasons in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Seattle). Although they do visit their respective homes, each couple comes together in a generic apartment producers rent out to house our soon-to-be newlyweds. This liminal space provides a neutral ground for co-habitation, allowing couples to come together while postponing true material unity. Here, against the anonymous backdrop of modular sofas and mass-market art, our lovers slowly begin to contend with each other’s respective worlds. They meet each other’s friends and families. They talk about where they’re going to live. Their phones reappear with a vengeance, a third wheel for each duo. What about their jobs? What about kids? Travel? My place or yours? The questions begin to bubble up.

As realities proliferate and layer, the most successful couples are those who can navigate it all by developing for themselves a strong narrative arc. Essentially, each enduring couple finds a way to talk themselves into a marriage. In the outside world, many of our romantic relationships are grounded in common space, shared interests, mutual values—and, of course, the simple accumulation of tandem experiences. (It goes without saying, here if not on the show, that we develop all of these out of our class backgrounds, our cultural allegiances, our ethnicities.) When things are good, we spend more time doing stuff together than we do talking about the state and future of our relationship. LIB’s accelerated timeline doesn’t give couples this luxury. Instead, what constitutes each of these relationships is the idea of the relationship itself. With such a quick turnaround from encounter to forever, the bulk of each couple’s interactions must necessarily be focused, not outward, on the world the couple will face together, but inward, on the viability of the relationship. Even assuming that Coelen’s edit emphasizes these meta-relational conversations over other mundanities, their sheer volume isn’t incidental. Every interaction feels teleological, turned toward the will-they-or-won’t-they moment at the end of the season. Chelsea and Kwame can’t discuss dogs without evaluating whether or not their feelings about dogs are eternally compatible. Conversations that might take place over years (when we move in together, let’s get a new comforter, one that isn’t pink), become sticking points that must be ironed out at once on the way to the future (Chelsea has to get rid of all her tacky pink junk). A couple says yes at the altar after talking their relationship into being, and maybe into submission, for weeks.

One of LIB’s lessons, then, is that love is essentially a narrative activity. This insight isn’t exactly new. But the show does a good job of modeling how our love stories have changed, how we live them now. Today, lovers must create stories that can carry them together between the different domains particular to contemporary life (online, in-person, private, professional, and so on). By one measure, the show is conservative. It positions itself in opposition to dating apps in season one , hearkening back to a time before we could swipe left or right and thus had to make our superficial judgments in person. Like its closest kin, Married at First Sight, 90-Day Fiancé, and Indian Matchmaking, the show trades on matchmaking practices with a deep history in multiple cultures. It also plays on nostalgia for a time before the ubiquitous fantasy of bourgeois mobility, when you had to just meet someone who lived nearby, a constraint that made things seem easier, or hard in a different way. Now, singles live under the tyranny of endless possibility, thanks to social media, dating apps, global job boards.

By another measure, however, there’s something innately digital about LIB’s premise. On shows like Catfish, we also see people who are deeply in love with others they have never seen, have only messaged via text or talked with on the phone. And LIB, of course, aired in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when watching people date in total seclusion, unable to infect each other with their breath, felt comforting and timely. Online dating, like the rest of the world, shut down as case numbers climbed, and then, it went virtual, so that meeting on Zoom became a new normal for lonely singles.

Navigating multiple spaces, then, and choosing what to reveal and when about the compartmentalized spheres of our lives, is a skill contemporary romance compels. LIB makes the narrative moves these conditions necessitate legible to us by condensing them. As we once did the novel or the film, forms that narrate what we can only experience IRL as protracted and diffuse, we turn to LIB because we can see take place over two months, or ten bingeable episodes, what usually takes years to play out—a couple meets, falls in love, unites family and friends, moves in together, plans a wedding, and then lives happily or unhappily ever after.

Set in full historical and political context, though, LIB’s narrative lessons aren’t innocent. They work in the service of the particularly American love stories the show prizes. While LIB pretends to pose a question, its title tells us that the game is rigged. The show celebrates and promotes a version of transcendental love that emerges without regard for the histories, intersectionalities, and material circumstances that manifest in our voices, our hearts, and our bodies.

This, too, should be familiar. In the US imagination, love has long been an arrow in the quiver of our fantasies of class mobility and racial unity. Before women’s democratic enfranchisement and corporate empowerment, marriage was the primary means by which women were imagined to be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, even as tragic heroines like Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart gave the lie to this fiction. Likewise, stories of love triumphing across barriers of racial discrimination and hate abound, even as tragic figures like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas push US race drama to its violent, eroticized limit. LIB doubles down on these fantasies, treating matters of race and class as individual preferences. It endorses a cute liberal multiculturalism that encourages contestants to share the cuisine their family prefers while avoiding conversations about the conflicting values and practices different cultures might endorse (even season three’s portrayal of the relationship between SK, a Nigerian immigrant to the US who sometimes wears traditional Nigerian garb, and Raven, a biracial American Pilates instructor, tried not to wade in too deep). It treats class disparity as a matter of personal responsibility, as in the case of Amber and Barnett, an enduring couple from season one who came together from different sides of the tracks.

If women (and men) have long married for money, LIB contestants look to a new benefactor. Production’s largesse provides the ring, the ceremony, the dress, manufacturing a bizarre alternate universe in which you can afford to throw a lavish wedding without knowing whether or not you even hope to be married at the end of it. (If you’ve always wanted that big, dreamy wedding, and you don’t really care who you’re marrying to get it, LIB is a good option.) In this way, the show circumvents class and gives everyone an even playing field. More, LIB couples are marrying into an intellectual property that keeps on giving. Contestants become D-list celebs with podcasts and sponsorships, racking up followers to secure influencer status. On LIB, in other words, two people marry each other for somebody else’s money. Couples become multimedia brands, their marriage one among many side hustles. Some LIB marriages are business ventures, complete with branded merch and platform crossovers. LIB is thus propaganda for a post-racial, post-class, post-historical neoliberal fiction. Its narrative alignments are deployed to iron out difference under a blanket of clicks and cash.

And yet, there’s a way to read LIB against itself. If every season asks the same question—is love metaphysical and ahistorical?—every season is a chance to prove the show’s title wrong. The reality of the pods, predicated upon imagination and essentialism, battles against the reality of the world, the material reality of bodies, histories, money, race, and more. In every couple’s story, these two realities clash in a dialectical battle that must either resolve in marriage or break down entirely. More often than not, the numbers tell us, the transcendental proves an illusion that can’t carry love into the future. In these more common stories, the reality of singularity wins out over the metaphysical, proving again and again that love must have a fuller picture of its object, must always be grounded in history in order to emerge at all. If LIB puts America’s dreams of blind love on trial every season, then we can celebrate how every season so far, that dream can’t win, not entirely. Love proves to be less about what’s in your soul and more about the fact that actually, you don’t want to move to Seattle right now, less about how safe you felt admitting your deepest trauma to a stranger you couldn’t see and more about how you just always pictured yourself with someone nicer.