Is Milf Manor the queasiest new dating show on TV?

Moms watch their sons flirt with other moms in strange reality competition series that feels like a 30 Rock joke made real

The reality show Milf Manor, which premiered on Sunday night, has already picked up more awards than some programs will ever enjoy. Various Twitter users have anointed it “the most disgusting show”, “the worst show”, and also “the darkest thing I have ever seen on television.”

There’s no denying that the overlying concept is rather horrifying: eight mothers descend on a Mexican villa, all single and ready to mingle with an octet of twentysomething men – who happen to be their sons. The program’s oedipal twist emerges in the beginning of the first episode, a front-loaded affair that struggles to know what to do with itself once the vaguely incestuous and thoroughly cringey reveal is out of the way.

The notion of a reality dating show based on moms and their boys has been in the ether since 2008, when a 30 Rock episode parodied how-low-can-you-go reality programming with Milf Island. This time, though, the milf content is for real. And it’s also really, really mystifying. How can a show engineered to touch a nerve be so boring? Thus far, at least, Milf Manor presents no outsize personalities, which means this is reality programming devoid of the clashes and catfights one might expect from reality programming. You won’t find nerve-racking contests either, unless you count the pin the tail on the donkey-ish game in which blindfolded mothers must run their hands over eight young men’s torsos and identify their offspring. The winners get to sleep in the villa’s biggest bedrooms – but what does square footage matter when everyone gets to shack up with her son at the end of the day?

That’s right. Welcome to the bachelor pad where men aren’t ever expected to leave the nest. They can lounge around all day in their fleece pjs, and give mom a hug when the spirit moves them. It’s a Mommy and Me pajama party that comes with uniquely low stakes, but the queasy factor is through the roof. At least that’s the intention. In this production, mothers must watch their precious sons chat up older women. And the sons, in turn, are forced to watch their mothers bat their eyes at men who might not be old enough to rent a car. Finally, some might say, the tables are turned. The May-December romance story has been rewritten! Older women get their shot at dewy-fleshed paramours. But more of us might see through the hashtag feminism and identify Milf Manor as a gussied-up American tragedy.

The most uncomfortable aspect of Milf Manor is not the silly title nor the eerily smooth foreheads that abound. It’s the unsettling truth that lies at the show’s (ridiculously well-toned) core: Milf Manor is a celebration of an entrenched American tradition: the failure to launch. According to 2022 census data, 19% of men ages 25-34 still live with their parents. Filial devotion to one’s mother is all the rage, from Prince Harry’s memoir of the moment to the flex du jour of self-identifying as a “mama’s boy”. Meanwhile, one of the young men who appears on Hulu’s older woman-younger man reality dating show Back in the Groove (hosted by How Stella Got Her Groove Back star Taye Diggs) revealed that his mother is one of the middle-aged love-seekers. Small surprise, then, that when sparks fly in Milf Manor, they’re between the women and their offspring.

The mother-son infatuation that dominates Milf Manor is a bit hard to swallow, and doesn’t bear close examination. It might also explain the spirit of denial that pervades the show. In a repudiation of the trend for defining characters by their past traumas, the women gathered here all have in common a perky disposition and distaste for investigating their pasts. Photographs of the female participants in earlier times are accompanied by micro-explainers. We learn that Pola, a fast-talking former ballerina who has relocated from Mexico to Miami, lost her husband in a car accident when their children were very young. “I decided I was going to live happily,” Pola says, “and just move forward!” Charlene, who comes from New Jersey and now lives in Hollywood, is mourning her daughter, who died less than a year ago, at age 27. It’s a ghastly revelation, but Charlene is quick to put a sunny spin on it. “I am doing this for Ashley in a lot of ways,” she says of her visit to Milf Manor. “She wants me to be happy. I know she would want me to be in love.”

Love is in the air, but it’s of the Freudian variety. Pola goes on a paddleboarding “mini date” with a young foot fetishist named Jimmy. They lie across their paddleboards and do stomach crunches as well as partner yoga, an activity that Pola says reminds her of raising her son. “I used to do this with Jose when he was younger,” she enthuses as she is seen holding her date aloft on her shins in an airplane pose. “I love to do that with kids. So this was really fun for me.”

Pola’s passion only becomes visible when they are back on the land, and she spots her son Jose close-talking to Kelle, a peroxide blond who has an alter-ego called “Disco Mommy” (hopefully there will be more on this later?). For now, Kelle is a chipper vertex of the Mommy and Me love triangle that is packaged as the episode’s cliffhanger. Will Jose pair up with Kelle? Or does mama know best?

I fear I won’t be learning the answer anytime soon. It’s hard to let go, yes. And this show is equally hard to watch.

  • Milf Manor airs on TLC in the US with a UK date to be announced


Lauren Mechling

The GuardianTramp

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