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Screenshot 2023-05-19 at 11.41.05
I Kissed A Boy (TV still)Courtesy BBC3

I Kissed A Boy is real gay life, laid bare on television

Writer Sean O’Neill investigates whether the new BBC Three dating show, billed as a ‘queer Love Island’, can liberate him from the scepticism of his own kind

These days, there is a fashionable way for gay men to distance themselves from the excesses of gay life. You see a particularly lurid sexual confession, lazily tweeted out halfway across the world at 10:34 on a Monday: “Bring back Section 28!”. A strange, affected TikTok by a permatanned couple of royalist twinks: “Recriminalise!”. It is harmless, self-effacing; a sentiment I have engaged in, too. But these days I am trying not to. I am trying to enjoy and celebrate the true freedom of gay men. I am bearing loving witness to all the deranged abandon with which we live our lives. 

In this spirit, I sit down to BBC3’s new gay dating show, I Kissed A Boy, airing twice a week for the foreseeable, under the loving guidance of Dannii Minogue. The concept is familiar: a couples competition in a European villa. Entrants, who were all matched up before the show started, arrive at an Italian villa where they greet their new partner with a kiss. In each couple of episodes, there will be an evening kiss-off, with the chance to reject your partner and recouple from the leftovers. Those left alone are sent home.

The first thing that grabs you is the music. In the opening moments, I clock the tinny urgency of “It’s Raining Men” by Geri Halliwell. Across the first two episodes, the show chugs through the oeuvre like it’s got control of the aux cord at an afters it wasn’t even invited to: Cheryl’s “Call My Name”, Kim Petras’ “Heart to Break”, Madonna’s “Into the Groove”. Some television these days is about gay men, but really meant for straight people. This show, however, is trying every cheap trick in the book to win over my people.

And how it is working! The cast is pleasingly diverse, with everything from svelte east London raver gays, to cubs with snakebites in striped shirts who profess to be tired of hookup culture. The boys whittle away the days with maniacally bored chatter worthy of hour seven of a car journey: “I love preserving life. The insects and the bees are loving it.” “Tall people die earlier. Have you ever seen an old tall person?” Early on, the cast shyly declare their proclivities to each other. In an elegant Chekhovian turn, Essex’s lanky Bobski announces intently to the room that he’s a “power bottom”, then spends the rest of the episodes immersed in chaotic, heart-rending drama.

The best gay stories, from A Line of Beauty to Pride, always have a newcomer forced to learn the morals and immorals of their adoptive culture, a sort of handholding exercise for the uninitiated viewer. Here we have Josh from Rhyl, a radiant ex-Mormon who has ‘never kissed a boy’ (not a prerequisite for the rest, but whatever). And like all isolated populations, the boys are beginning to slowly but perceptibly band into factions. The ones with facial hair and normal jobs sit around the pool, declaring other contestants a “bit of them”, while the divas cluster around the bar, spreading trusted secrets at the speed of light, all competing to play the role of the audience’s whipsmart narrative steward. (The early frontrunner for that role is the fashionable Gareth, who looks like an Italian who would lie to you about not having any cigarettes at Dalston Superstore, but speaks with an awesomely broad Ulster accent, of a sort unheard on TV since the teenage Nadine Coyle told those lies about her passport). 

The show is not without its flaws. One hour and 30 minutes of showtime have passed at this gorgeous Italian villa, and each participant has remained relatively sober and in control of their wits. That no one is allowed to get leathered is the great paradox of contemporary reality TV, but enforcing it on gay men on a group holiday feels particularly harsh. Danielle Walsh did some sterling Eurovision promo work with the BBC last month: here’s hoping they’ll send her in as a bartender on this show too. 

Moreover, the format seems strict. Kissers couple up, and the jilted go home. It might suit Love Island, but how will it work here? Whither throuples? Whither savvy besties who get with each other just for a laugh, and end up cheating the format with ease? It’s early on, with much to be clarified. But my hope is that gay romance is able to progress on its own open-ended and messy terms, even as the monogamy of the form enforces a sense of cunning and competition.

Also, I would like to see them send a hot rich older man into the cast, as I think that would reliably send everyone into unparalleled psychic delirium. 

But these are minor niggles. I groaned from deep in my stomach when Ross’ confession of a crush was rebutted with an HR-like, “I appreciate you telling me this.” I whooped when Bobski clawed back his own dignity in a steamy scene by the pool, hell to the naysayers (ie me). I can feel myself becoming liberated from scepticism about my own kind, electrified by the hope of real gay life laid bare on television at last. I am already bereft at the idea one of them will be sent home this weekend. Get onto it. 

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