A friend told me about the existence of Sexy Beasts a month or two ago over a pint, after the trailer was released to widespread online revulsion.
“Haven’t you seen it?” he asked, “It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d like – stupid dating guff but it’s also really horrifying.” He was right.
Here was the confluence of my twin trash interests – shagging and monsters – I didn’t know I’d been waiting for. The participants of Sexy Beasts are ostensibly after a deep romantic connection that goes beyond the physical.
They say things like “People don’t see me for who I really am because of the way I look” and “A lot of snap judgements get made when someone looks at my body”, which, I don’t know, are not the world’s most sympathetic complaints, are they?
Being viewed as a sex symbol seems a fairly easy problem to overcome, because at any time you are capable of speaking and acting in ways which reveal whatever personality lies beneath the shiny exterior. If there is indeed a lot more going on beneath the surface – as classically good-looking people sometimes like to remind their lumpen peers that there is, that they can also be doctors and scientists and great thinkers – what’s to stop it coming out? The additional power of reducing people to awe-struck quivering admirers seems like it can only be a bonus, a pleasant cherry on the icing of human interaction, not a minus by anyone’s measure.
Nevertheless, this lot are determined not to get pigeonholed by their looks and so allow themselves to be hideously costumed in an array of traumatising prosthetic disguises.
Some of them are kind of cute, I admit. The beaver whose underlying human man is a sort of goofy jock who keeps going on about how much he loves asses endeared himself to me, for instance.
But mostly they are intentionally, comically repellent, constructed and applied with enough skill to veer off from silly Halloween costuming and into the terrain of the dreadfully almost-realistic uncanny valley. The dolphin is the worst offender, a harrowing confection of bulging, bulbous brow and disgustingly smooth, shiny grey ‘skin’.
To be up front, although I had a great time watching it, the show does not live up to its disturbing promise. Where I wanted hysteria, a freak show, an outlandish carnal nightmare exploding on my screen, what we mostly get is a cute enough 25-minute dating show like so many others. The only real selling point is the moment of unveiling, when something curious is occasionally revealed: the hideous costumes actually added something attractive to these standardly gorgeous people.
Some of them, despite their blinding white teeth and straight noses and miraculous skin, are more appealing with their masks on. The first contestant, Emma, is dressed as a demon, and when her own beautiful, regular face was revealed, I was sad to lose the suggestion of bon vivant hedonistic mischief which the smirking curve of her devil eyes and grin lent her.
None of the reveals are shocking, or even have the possibility to be so. It would be an act of immense cruelty to sprinkle in a few less-than-averagely attractive folk between all these models and hunks, and so each time the reality is revealed, we’re left to half-heartedly coo at the entirely unsurprising pretty person beneath.
I was trying to puzzle out what it was exactly which made the show so tonally flat, so lacking in drama. Its central question, after all, is an interesting one – is true romantic chemistry possible with a person whose appearance we are ignorant of? Are looks always the primary concern of people interested in finding a mate? Can I fancy a six-foot white mouse nervously palming the fur back behind his sweet pink ears, and is it legal?
The fact is, it’s not possible for this show to approach the question of whether looks can be rendered obsolete because they have only cast standardly hot people. Now the contestants don’t know this about one another for sure. They try to find out – one asks her date whether his science-fiction fandom is reflective of what he looks like to which he roars “Baby I’m a HOT nerd!”. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter that they can’t see for certain that the other is up to scratch.
What matters is that all of them act like the hot people that they are. It is of no surprise whatsoever that they managed to find connections with each other, to genuinely fancy each other, despite having warts and snouts and fur growing out of every facial orifice. Emma the demon has such natural chemistry with Bennett the Baboon that they nauseatingly manage to wrench back the folds of their false mouths far enough to make out under an umbrella in a grim theme park. Clearly, it is possible to get it bad for someone whose face you can’t see.
Acting like you are hot is in itself hot. This is a law of nature. Bennett the Baboon acted like he was hot, and so he seemed like he must be hot. He also acted like an unbearable peacocking idiot, but those two things can go hand in hand.
To act hot is not to constantly insist that you are so, but rather to be assured enough of your own baseline appeal that you move through the world not really having to think about it very much.
You work under the assumption that others will desire you, and that those who don’t are foolish or just wrong. It’s not confidence so much as ignorance, an ignorance of the more happenstance chaos of dating for the physically unexceptional, an ignorance of what it is to be alone when you don’t want to be.
You can smell this blissful, seductive ignorance – from someone who has never faded miserably into the background in their lives – a mile off, or sweating beneath the thick vulcanised rubber of a dinosaur costume.
Sexy Beasts Season 1 is streaming on Netflix