The Onion’s Sex House is now our reality

Screengrab of Sex House title credits

Here’s a pitch for a reality show: move a group of young, attractive, single people into luxury accommodation. Cut them off from the outside world and deprive them of any entertainment beyond social interaction. Use overtly sexual challenges and nudges from the producers to encourage them to act on their attraction to each other. Other reality shows may pretend to be a social experiment, but this one has no illusions about why the audience is really there: we want to see people hook up on television.

Today, this show is ITV2’s monster hit Love Island. But back in 2012, this was The Onion’s Sex House.

Welcome to Sex House

Sex House is a 10-part reality TV parody, produced by Onion Digital Studios and released on YouTube. The show’s intro explains the premise: “Six sexy Americans, alone in a house with nothing to do but get nasty!” It’s Big Brother meets The Bachelor, boiled down to its most grotesque id. If you haven’t seen it, give it a watch now – it’s free, aside from about 70 minutes of your time and a small fraction of your soul.

Most of the cast hit the classic reality TV stereotypes, like cocky bro Jay and bubbly ex-cheerleader Tara. There’s also Frank, a middle-aged family man, who finds himself on the show after winning a Tombstone Pizza competition.

Screengrab of Frank's intro in the title sequence, featuring the text 'Big Daddy', 'Homeowner' and '45 Year Old Man'.
“I’m not going to have sex with anyone, but meeting new people is always a wonderful treasure.”

Once everyone has been introduced, the producers quickly get the contestants liquored up. The resulting events, while arguably what the audience wants, are deeply uncomfortable. And the horror is only just beginning.

Initially, the housemates are happy to meet the show’s expectations of them. The show’s intro slaps labels on each of them – “girl next door”, “maneater” – and for the most part, they’re excited to play those parts. But it’s not long before they’re hit by the reality of the situation. Cabin fever and malnutrition set in, neither of which create a romantic atmosphere. Derek, the only gay man in the house, begins to wonder what his role on the show is meant to be. The cast also start to distrust the Sex House itself, which has started unleashing random blasts of scalding hot air on its inhabitants.

Soon contestants begin to rebel against the conventions of the format. Two characters decide not to consummate their attraction for one another after realising their romance has been orchestrated by the producers. The showrunners, desperate to provide sexy entertainment for the audience, start to take extreme measures.

Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 13.44.26
Jay and Tara find an escape from sex in Settlers of Catan.

This is where Sex House diverges from other shows that skewer reality TV, like Burning Love or UnREAL. The house descends into a nightmarish landscape of bananas, flies, frogs and mould. The last two episodes push the premise to its most extreme conclusions, and both are horrifying and hilarious in different ways.

The horror of exploitation

Sex House is absurd, crass and very funny. But the show also does a fantastic job of humanising the people who reality TV treats as disposable puppets.

Initially, it’s easy to dismiss the residents of Sex House as attention-hungry idiots. They are one-dimensional figures who exist only for our entertainment. We can enjoy their triumphs, but we’d much rather laugh at their humiliations. It’s easy to think that anyone who would sign up to be on this sort of show deserves their fate.

As Sex House gets darker, and the producers’ actions swerve from manipulation into straight-up neglect, our view of the characters changes. We stop seeing them as sexualised clowns and start to see them as the victims in their very own house of horrors.

Screengrab from Sex House. The angry cast face down the camera.
The Sex Housemates in revolt.

This shift of perspective is very intentional. “We tried to turn the characters into the heroes and the House/Host/Producers into the villains. Everyone hates people on reality shows but they’re just nice dumb people who want to be on TV,” writer Chris Sartinsky said during a Reddit AMA.

The show’s producers aren’t out to torture the cast – they just don’t care about them beyond their entertainment value. As Derek says: “To call this place ‘evil’ implies a clarity of purpose that I do not want to attribute to anyone involved.” But no matter how hard they fight, the occupants of Sex House are powerless against the dehumanising effect of the production machine. The show saps their individuality, their autonomy and eventually their souls. By the final reunion episode, they’ve been reduced to the easily digestible caricatures the show always wanted them to be.

The creation of Sex House

Sex House was part of a larger experiment in serialised entertainment for America’s Finest News Source. Supported by funding from YouTube itself, Onion Digital Studios produced a range of TV parodies, including Food Network-style travelogue Porkin’ Across America and miserable nature documentary Horrifying Planet.

But Sex House was the biggest hit of the bunch. The first episode is still the most-watched video on The Onion’s YouTube channel, with over 30 million views. However, judging by the comments and the high dislike ratio, many of those viewers were actually just looking for porn. “We believed that YouTube users would be more likely to click on something called Sex House than on something more subtle,” said writer Michael Pielocik during the Reddit AMA, and it looks like they was right. (The view count on the final episode is much lower, at just over 2 million.)

Like UnREAL, which was created by a former reality TV producer, Sex House had a little insider expertise. The show’s director of photography had actually worked on The Real World before, which gave the production an authentic feel. The camera crew didn’t know what the cast would be doing beforehand, so had to film reactively, as they would on an unscripted series. The show features all the hallmarks of trashy reality TV: heavy editing, obnoxious sound cues, and a host whose sudden appearance is always treated with extreme reverence by the contestants.

Screengrab from Sex House showing the 'sex counter' at 0001.
I don’t think other reality shows have adopted the ‘sex counter’, but I can’t be sure.

Onion Digital Studios appears to have closed down some time after 2012. The Sex House team went on to formed a writing collective called Wild, Aggressive Dog. Some of the ODS staff are still at The Onion, while others have gone on to work on The Daily Show, Adult Swim infomercials, and weirdo shows like Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

Almost seven years after its release, Sex House has mostly sunk into obscurity, remembered only by a handful of comedy nerds and confused YouTube perverts. But its legacy continues.

Sex House is dead, long live Sex House

Love Island is a British reality TV series, airing on ITV2. The show features a rotating cast of attractive single people who live together in a luxury villa. Contestants must couple up with each other or risk being eliminated. The villa’s occupants spend their time lounging in swimwear, competing in challenges which are designed to spark drama or lust, and canoodling with each other. It averages about 4 million viewers per episode (about 6% of the UK population) and has spawned a range of international versions.

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 23.02.59
Jack and Dani, the Jay and Tara of Love Island.

Parallels between Sex House and Love Island are obvious. Even the names are similar, although Love Island sounds more expensive. The show occasionally has some pretensions about providing some insight into modern relationships – Adam’s poor treatment of Rosie led to some light media discussion about gaslighting, for example. But it also encourages its cast to walk around half naked, challenges women to squash watermelons with their bums, and exiles anyone who can’t find a sexual partner unless the audience agrees they still have some entertainment value (see Dr Alex). Love Island is Sex House with a bigger budget.

The Sex House contestants’ rebellion against their working conditions, and their eventual abandonment by the producers, has also found its way into reality. Channel 4’s survivalist show Eden was meant to show its cast enduring an entire year in the wilderness. The show stopped airing after four episodes because of low ratings, but the production company didn’t tell the show’s participants this for months. Instead it left them to eke out a miserable existence in an increasingly toxic community, and actively discouraged them from quitting. (The group of writers from Onion Digital Studios retweeted someone saying, “This is literally the plot of Sex House.”) Eventually the show was rebranded and relaunched as Eden: Paradise Lost, luring in audiences with the promise of reality TV gone wrong.

Screengrab from Eden, showing a woman watching in shock as a house burns
Eden may not have had white mould, but it did have house fires.

At this point, I should admit that I have watched both of these shows – I only managed a few episodes of Eden, but I obsessively followed Love Island last summer, and have kept a guilty eye on the status of the relationships it spawned. (Hit me up if you want to talk about Megan and Wes’s breakup announcement.)

In that Reddit AMA, Sex House head writer Sam West said, “The show is very dark but the whole idea of reality TV (and its proliferation over the past 20 years) reveals some pretty gross stuff about Americans and what they ‘want to see.'” It turns out that goes for British audiences too. When I first saw Sex House, I laughed at its over-the-top concept, and yet here I am eagerly consuming its real-life equivalent. I could try to defend myself by saying that reality TV isn’t the only aspect of our lives that’s basically become an Onion parody in recent years. But I think I probably am just gross.

Screengrab from Love Island, showing the contestants standing around the firepit
All of these couples have split up. I know because I read about it on the Cosmo website.

Sex House made me take an unflattering look at myself and my viewing habits. But when Love Island returns in the summer, I’ll probably still be watching it. However, I will at least try to respect its cast as human beings trapped in an entertainment hell-machine. So here’s some advice from a Sex House viewer to the Season 5 cast of Love Island: don’t trust the host, stay away from the vents, and remember – cloudy drink kills frog.

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