Sitarah Pendelton reflects on the groundbreaking eighth season of the MTV dating show

By Marcus Jones
September 09, 2019 at 10:21 PM EDT
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The long-running MTV dating competition Are You the One? broke new ground in its eighth season, filling its Hawaii set with singles who are all sexually fluid, meaning any one of the contestants could be another’s perfect match.

The stakes became higher, and the show, flaws and all, became a landmark LGBTQ+ TV program that has spurred some think pieces.

In anticipation of the finale, where six contestants still have no clue who there perfect match is, EW talked to executive producer Sitarah Pendelton about how the season came together and if the Come One, Come All concept has a future beyond this summer.

MTV

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How and when did the idea for this sexually fluid season come about?
SITARAH PENDELTON: My boss Nina Diaz, president of entertainment for the MTV groups, had assigned me this project when I first rejoined the network and we went down a couple of paths of what we could do with this franchise. When you’ve produced a show that has multiple seasons, and in this day and age everything changes every day, we really wanted to make sure that we were continuing to be reflective of our viewers and true to how people were dating. What were the things that were bubbling up over the course of the series? We found that this was something that was tracking. We’re like, “Wow, this younger generation looks at love and dating and their relationships with a completely different prism than maybe generations of the past.” And again, with MTV always wanting to be reflective of our viewers and understand where those stories lie, it just was an organic path to follow. Like, of course we would do this — if not us, then who?

So we started casting and we started trying to see if this was something that we could pull off, and I have to tell you it very quickly became a passion project. I wish that I could’ve done five seasons of this at one time because there were so many amazing individuals that we met through this process and amazing stories that it was hard to whittle it down. Obviously we went through the matchmaking process and so forth, and that ultimately helps whittle it down, but it was very quickly an amazing ride.

While the sexually fluid cast is the most commendable aspect of this project, having anyone be able to match with anyone certainly ups the stakes of the competition aspect of the show. Did that appeal to you all in developing it?
It’s for sure something we had to consider and also part of the reason why we lessened the cast, because just in doing the math you will see the possibilities of how many times they could match with each other, or assume that they were matches going into the truth booth for sure made the game exponentially harder. And yes we are producers, and yes we want our format to work, but by lessening the cast we didn’t want to make this impossible. The whole point is to actually take the journey, to have this rite of self-exploration, and love, and learning about yourself, and unpacking your baggage, and all of those things. So we by no means wanted to create a game that was just “Oh this is a game, it’s fun.” It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be entertaining just to watch this social experiment from that standpoint.

The purpose of this, though, still is taking these young people whose hearts are so open, who are willing to share their life and their journey and bring their baggage and their experiences, all that on national television — which isn’t an easy thing to do because they genuinely, earnestly want to find love in the one, and acceptance. To be amongst those who are open to exploring this journey as well. So that is where we leaned more, and needed to balance out the cash to make sure that the fact that we just made the game harder didn’t actually cripple what our ultimate goal was in the end.

Evolving that experience also allows for story lines like Max coming to terms with his attraction to Justin, or Jonathan learning to accept Basit’s gender expression.
One hundred percent, and just for full disclosure on my end I’m a black woman, what I love about this and what is so clear is no matter the community is that there are multiple stories within the community, and when you are “diverse” in some way, I think it’s very easy for general thought masses or whatever to just be like, “Oh, well okay, so you’re a brown girl so you like hip-hop and etc.” It’s the same thing within a sexually fluid community. There are so many layers of who people are, in general, and I love that about this pack. I love that these 16 people even sharing a commonality, and all looking for the same experience of love, and all sexually identifying in a similar way, are now put into this situation. Even then there’s still so many layers amongst them within their own community, and being able to kind of unpack that within themselves. Jonathan’s a great example. I love his arc and his evolution within this, like how life-changing it’s been for him within this process. We love to call the show a social experiment, and it absolutely is. Yes, you’re putting people in a certain controlled environment on a TV show, but the point is to allow them that safe space to emote, to express, to love, to cry, to laugh, to fight, and to have that cathartic emotional journey to ultimately finding the one. I mean, does it get better than that?

Besides the cast, are there any other major elements new to the show, or is there anything not exactly represented this season that newcomers to the format should know about?
I am happy to say that we didn’t change the show, we didn’t need to. The format is the format, so what you see is what you get. This season just happened to be a fluid cast and their journey towards love, but you know when we were producing the show, the tagline internally that I had amongst my group was “love is love.” Now in full disclosure, we did add one element to the show this season, and that was Dr. Frankie. Frankie was added not as a response to a fluid cast but to answer something that we’ve been hearing in our research for a couple of seasons, which was our viewers wanted a little bit more transparency into not only the matchmaking process, but what makes a perfect match, or how our cast is getting through this. So I love that we were able to bring in Dr. Frankie from a standpoint of allowing our cast to have a sounding board. We specifically tied Dr. Frankie to our challenges because I’m sure no one realizes all of the micro-details that go into how we put these shows together or how/what things are intentional. So while the challenge might just be a competition so that they can win a date, we spend a lot of time vetting our challenges to figure out what they need to learn within this challenge. How are we moving them emotionally, physically, spiritually towards something that’s helping them have this [realization].

It seems like the cast was grateful to have her there.
Yeah, and including her specifically as the person within the televised part the show was another organic moment. We were going through this and again having multiple matchmakers, psychologists, etc., and Dr. Frankie being a part of that process; she just seemed to have such a natural connection with the cast. Obviously her background being an LGBTQ+ matchmaker and psychologist in this field, it was almost a lightbulb moment. We’re like, “What?” And she’s amazing, personable, attractive, like, “Would you be interested in being on TV because I feel like we’re looking to solve this X of answering this question for viewers.” We were kicking around a number of ideas, but this seemed to be a very organic one that happened during this process, and she was willing, so we are grateful to have her and I thought she did a great job.

Could you shed a little light on the motivations behind shifting the show to Monday nights at 11? Some fans thought the network was trying to bury the show, while others thought it was smart to have it follow ABC’s dating show Bachelor in Paradise.
What I’ll say is that there are people who work in programming, who are way smarter than me, that really look into the metrics of all of that. And I know that it was a very thoughtful and mindful decision for the move. It for sure, by no means, was a burying and we got on every megaphone we could think of to make sure that that was understood by the cast, our production partners, and the internal team and so forth. Ironically, our ratings grew. We are an L+3 network, there’s a lot of time-shifting in general with viewership across all the channels. So on our DVRs, and people still tuning in, and our numbers continuing to pop and grow, it just worked. Monday nights were also very strong for us as a brand as well, and just having that power, once you punch up the chain, worked for us in general. It was a hard move to understand, I know, for some viewers, but a very thoughtful, calculated move that ultimately did not harm the show at all.

What has it been like to see a whole new audience come to the show because of the representation this season brings? There are even watch parties around the U.S. now.
Who knew?! Oh my gosh, listen… it makes me cry, honestly, to realize that we did that. That they are finally seeing representation of themselves on TV, that there are young adults and teens coming up who are like, “Yes, finally!” Who can have that shared experience and see themselves represented on television. I think as a minority in this country myself, there’s nothing more thrilling than that. I said to our production company, and to our internal team, every single person that worked on the show, that we needed to be very clear on where our ignorances lie and to make sure that we knew how to artfully, intelligently, and thoughtfully share the experiences of these 16 individuals who were putting their lives in our hands from a media standpoint. Not to get personal, but using myself as an example, I’m like, there’s nothing worse than being a member of a minority group when you’re watching something you’re like, “Really, come on now. Nobody does that. That’s not real. That’s not what we do.” Or that’s stereotypical in some way. I wanted to be screaming at the TV, going, “Yes, exactly! You get it.” So these watch parties, these articles, and the way that people are responding and saying, “Yes, you got it. Yes please,” it brings tears to my eyes. Like I’m tearing up right now, it’s heartwarming. There’s nothing more as a storyteller that you’d want. That’s it.

What are some moments from this season that stands out to you as new milestones in reality TV?
There are so many episodes — you’re kidding me, a moment? I would say I have so many. I think Kai sharing his testosterone shots with us on TV. Jonathan and Basit finding each other and coming together and understanding that. Max admitting that this is all new to him and he’s trying to really find his way. Remy falling hard and just wanting to be understood beyond the labels of who he was. Danny being free to dress in drag, and to dance and feel himself. I mean, please, I could go on and on and on.

Is there a future for the sexually fluid, Come One, Come All version of this show? Could this be a spin-off that lives even as a project on a separate platform?
Yeah, I think that we will continue to tell the stories that we feel need to be told, and that our audience is yearning for. This clearly was one of them. Would I love the opportunity to do more of that? One thousand percent. Are there more stories like this to tell? Of course. Are there other stories that exist — like before we did this, people just assumed that there was just one way to tell a love story, and there are multiple ways to tell a love story. So I think with this brand, and with this amazing format, that we can just continue to find the cast and continue to tell those love stories to help our audience find the one, no matter the iteration or what the sexual orientation is of that.

So there is a continued passion to still have representation for the LGBTQ+ community?
Of course. And again the beauty of our brand is whether we’re telling it on linear television, whether we’re doing something for MTV Studios and putting it on a digital sphere, or launching a YouTube channel, the MTV brand is across so many mediums that we will always, and have historically always, told these stories. I love that people are like, “Oh, this is so groundbreaking,” and I’m like, “But we’ve done this. Go back to The Real World. I had my first conversation about AIDS from watching The Real World.” This is what MTV does, so yeah, we’ll continue always to represent across all demographics and [identities] and sexual orientations, etc. That’s what we do, and I’m very proud of that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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