Mindlessness is bliss. Little did we know, binge-watching Love Is Blind back in February 2020, that Netflix’s outlandish “experiment” would soon resemble our locked-down lives.
The three-week “event” – where people got to know each other from separate rooms, before immediately getting engaged and in some cases married – was inexplicably compulsive viewing early last year. Back then, isolating from others even inside the same house, looking for love from a physical remove, and forcing new couples into cohabitation was just a hypnotic new low for dating shows.
Within months, of course, we found ourselves scrambling for connection from pods – bubbles, rather – of our own. So it’s in some ways fitting that we should be revisiting the Love Is Blind couples now amid lifting restrictions. After the Altar, Netflix’s new three-part miniseries, is the second follow-up to the series, following a fairly limp reunion special in March 2020.
It’s a lot of time to spend catching up with people we weren’t all that invested in to start with. At least the producers know to centre Cam and Lauren, long the show’s most likable couple as well as the most persuasive of “the experiment’s” success (not least because – as we are persistently reminded – Cam is a scientist).
They have visibly relaxed into both their roles as Love Is Blind’s presidential couple, and husband and wife – if, indeed, they make any distinction between the two. They certainly seem entirely compliant in After the Altar, with “hell, we’ve come this far” implicit in Lauren’s every word.
We pick up with the couple before Lauren’s birthday dinner, bickering about whether Cam should “wash the chicken” pre-cooking (wash produce, says the scientist, but not meat). At the table they helpfully, systematically update their nonplussed parents on the goings-on within the “pod squad”.
The Barnetts – you may remember them as Amber, the “ex-tank mechanic”, and Barnett – are considering curbing their “crazy” lifestyles to have children. (Or, as Barnett puts it: condom-free sex, “the best part of being married”.) LC, Kelly and Diamond are single, to varying degrees of “happily”. Kenny – who always seemed too sensible for Love Is Blind – is engaged to someone he met after the show. And Carlton seems still scarred by the experience.
Most significantly, Mark is expecting a baby with his new fiancee, after being jilted at the altar by Jessica (and a post-production fling with LC); and Jessica has a new boyfriend, after half-heartedly attempting to break up the Barnetts. All three have now blocked Jessica on social media; Mrs Barnett refuses to speak her name, calling her “Voldemort”.
And now they will all be together again – for the two married couple’s joint anniversary party. “When we get the group together, it’s always a fun time,” Cam says. You might believe him were it not for Lauren beside him, her smile frozen. “I hope so,” she says.
You can’t fake that tension – but the narrative arc of After the Altar, insofar as there is any, is so contrived as to make the Kardashians look off the cuff. Every scene shows its seams: Diamond is set up with a date for the party; the guys discuss potential parenthood while listlessly pumping iron; the girls get lunch to compare manicures and men (specifically: Mark).
Only two people really get behind the brief for chaos: the self-described “soulpreneur” Giannina and her former fiance Damian, who rejected her at the altar. Despite this, says Giannina, they are not only still together but very much in love.
This is news to Damian, who has been actively dating (if you call some hand holding and a frisson-free lunch “dating”, which the producers emphatically do) a woman named Francesca.
It seems as though Giannina’s observation in the lead-up to their would-be wedding day – that, when he told her that theirs was the best sex of his life, she didn’t return the compliment – may have left a mark. Damian has since bought a Porsche, to express the “sexy, nasty” side of his personality; and had has under-eye fillers and under-arm Botox (to suppress his expression, if you will).
Francesca, meanwhile, emerges as an increasingly sympathetic character as the depths of the dysfunction in which Damian has landed her are made excruciatingly apparent – when he invites her to the party marking his would-be wedding anniversary with Giannina. You find yourself hoping that Francesca’s secretly in on the set-up; otherwise it’s just cruel.
But with three 40-minute episodes hinging on the one night – and little chance, you’d think, of getting this group in a room together anytime soon – the producers plant several bombs in the hopes that at least a few will go off. Many conspicuously don’t. By his own admission, Carlton – who Diamond churlishly jilted after learning that he was bisexual – is too defensive and on guard around the cast and cameras to play ball.
She Who Must Not Be Named, meanwhile, is too obviously wounded to reprise her part as the villain. In fact it’s not Jessica who emerges as the bad guy but Mark: the quick-to-commit, puppyish personal trainer whom she rejected at the altar (with her instantly iconic alternative to “I do”: a sombre “I cannot”).
It seems that not only was Mark unfaithful to Jessica during their televised engagement (and, later, to LC); he did not defend her against the abuse she received online after the show. “I was probably one of the most hated people ever to be on a reality TV show,” she says tearfully.
But the show does not engage with its part in that presentation; in fact the presence of “Rory the cast therapist” at the party seems intended to underscore that there was one. And Mark’s new role as resident villain is undercut by the fact that he’s not there to defend himself, having sensibly declined the invitation to what was always going to be a nightmarish evening.
Indeed, After the Altar stands testament less to the relationships forged through “the experiment” than to each couple’s ongoing commitment to see it through – whether it’s with grin-and-bear-it pragmatism like Lauren and Barnett; a determination to give the cameras something to film, like Amber and Giannina; or a Porsche, like Damian.
But even a Porsche – even true love – cannot be worth a night like this. You might not want these couples to fail but you definitely don’t want to attend any more of their anniversary parties, either. The most honest response of the evening comes from Diamond’s date, who leaves after a few hours, cameras tracking him all the way to the lift.
Diamond is dismayed: “He said he’s not having a good time, and he doesn’t want to be here.”
• Love Is Blind: After the Altar is now on Netflix