Host James Kerley and contestants on Ten's failed Taken Out

In 2008 Network Ten made a splash with dating show Taken Out. The network pulled the massive flop after just four weeks. People couldn’t stand the vapid contestants, smug host James Kerley, or the single-episode formula. Australian audiences wanted at least the pretend character development of The Farmer Wants a Wife, The Bachelor or Beauty and the Geek. But Taken Out wasn’t a total failure; the production house behind the show — international juggernaut FremantleMedia — were naïve to produce it so early in Australia. Their concept hit the low-brow jackpot internationally: successfully exported to 19 countries, none have embraced it more than China — with 50 million tuning in per episode. The Chinese hybrid goes by the English name If You Are The One.

Recut for Australia, If You Are The One is forty-minutes of blinged out cultural kitsch, ridiculous sound effects, vulgar sets, neurotic lighting and terrible 90s pop, and yet some how we’re completely charmed. SBS 2 recently upped the show’s airings from one night a week to threein the prime time slot of 7:45pm; ratings are up 11%.

Several times each episode, a new guy attempts to woo 24 young women, the girls opt out of his affection by turning off their podium light — judging him by onstage manner and video diaries. The girls are fixtures on the show until they score a date or are replaced without mention. If a coupling happens, they win a pair of “custom made lovers’ shoes” and — depending on how popular the guy was at first impression — win a trip to Hawaii, or more recently a cruise on the Aegean Sea. If the guy bombs out, his email address is shown on screen at the end of the show.

Though the set of If You Are The One looks like a neon plastic megaplex from hell, the show itself is down to earth and mostly impromptu, and not even a little bit cheesy. We aren’t used to Asian game shows being this genuine. I point the finger at highly orchestrated SBS stable mates, the Japanese Iron Chef, with its absurdly accented American overdubs, and Ninja Warrior (think Wipeout with much better public liability insurance). It’s a shock that our first taste of Chinese reality TV comes in such frank packaging.

The hosts are allowed to have real personalities, too. Presenter Meng Fei is like a Chinese Kochie, presiding over his vulnerable contestants like a cool intellectual uncle. There’s no glazing over hard truths (“Did you understand that? She means you look old”), plenty of jokes about his own age and baldness (“Now someone will photoshop a fringe on my head?”), and regular healthy doses of sarcasm  (“Search online for the traits of a genius!  He’s got them all!”).

The male contestants validate and subvert every Chinese stereotype — a chubby bun seller, a bull-faced butcher, a dweeby security guard, a B-boy video game analyst, a 6’2″ bus driver, and just about every kind of client manager and business consultant possible. The expected sexual politics are played out with the men taking shots (“My wife should be a good cook and presentable”, “She meets my height and weight requirement”), and the women giving just as good as they get (“I’d like to find a Chinese husband so I can hen-peck him, we can’t do that in Korea”, “He’s too skinny, he doesn’t make me feel secure”).

If You Are The One‘s cross-section of life is the most revealing window we have into China on TV. There are constant references (and reverences) to parents, and culturally poignant moments like when a contestant explains why he’s in no rush to move to the US: “China is an express and America is a slow coach in terms of development”, the contestant says (Meng Fei quickly steps in — “We’re both express trains”, he says diplomatically). In another episode, a Mandarin-speaking Russian girl asks a contestant what he thinks of foreigners. “I think they have nice faces, their faces are three dimensional”, comes the reply.

The two co-hosts are the smug Le Gia, and Aunty-like Miss Huang — trendy, slightly older psychologists who sit at the side of the stage, casually interjecting with pointless-but-poignant observations, especially Miss Huang — “For the first time we hear I just like him, we often hear I just don’t like him”. And all three hosts are always ready to throw a bit of Chinese philosophy in (“Pessimism leads to success”, “Every Emperor needs a good general by his side”).

Modern Chinese are tightly connected to the past. The cohesion of old world and new flows so easily, and the ideological undercurrent of the show highlights this. The three hosts commend volunteerism and acts of selflessness. “Comrade” is still used as a term of address. The male contestants submit themselves to a type of public self-criticism, something culturally innate — last month top Communist Party officials made headlines as they partook in three days of self-criticism, broadcast on national TV.

And this is how If You Are The One flips the script. On the surface it’s Look At How Westernised Chinese Youth Are (yawn) but then the girl described as a “company owner” wearing a mini skirt and stilettos directs a question to the “client manager”  on stage: “What is your faith?”, she asks. “The Party”, comes his reply. The crowd cheers. Your head is left spinning.

Maybe the show has been constructed to make us think Chinese youth aren’t as shallow and capitalist as we might assume. In 2010 If You Are The One was “regulated” by state officials after it attracted international media controversy for its apparent focus on wealth and materialism. The party said it wasn’t spreading the right values. Since then, things like bank balances are no longer disclosed on the show and the girls are encouraged to be kinder. I hope If You Are The One is sincere as it appears to be — either way, it’s a curiosity worth checking out.

If You Are The One airs on SBS 2 at 7:45pm every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.