I almost swiped past it. ‘Dating Around’, Netflix’s latest reality show, is based on an unremarkable premise: In each episode, “one real-life single navigates five blind dates,” in search of “one match worthy of a second date.” This is the kind of conceptual void that reality television producers typically pad with gimmicks. They make their daters go bikini skiing, or mud wrestle their romantic rivals, or kiss in old-age make-up. But on “Dating Around,” two strangers just get together for dinner and drinks, and this scenario supplies all of the necessary drama. It is the rare dating show that takes dating seriously.
That is a pleasant surprise. Previous iterations of the multiple-blind-date format — early aughts offerings like “Next,” “Dismissed” and “ElimiDate” — subsisted on canned one-liners and bitter judgements. The camera always seemed to be looking down on everyone. Even ‘The Bachelor’, which styles itself as so hopelessly romantic that each season is designed to culminate in an engagement, is a fundamentally cynical exercise. But by lowering the stakes about as far as they can go, ‘Dating Around’ has managed to dial up the excitement and possibility of the dreaded first-date experience.
The six episodes of ‘Dating Around’ are named for their central singletons — Luke, Gurki, Lex, Leonard, Sarah and Mila — and the show handles them delicately, bathing them in low light and summoning close friends to introduce them via voice-over. Reality dating shows often draw from the aesthetics of beauty contests and sports, but this one is produced like prestige television, filming dates as if they were scenes between character actors.
The editing style recalls the ‘Master of None’ episode ‘First Date’, in which Aziz Ansari’s Dev embarks on a series of app-mediated encounters that are spliced together into a single narrative. And it feels like a distant relative of ‘Russian Doll’, except that these New Yorkers are fated to blind-date over and over again, eating at the same restaurants and sidling up to the same bars, until some unexpected element sends their lives in a new direction.
Reality television editing has a bad reputation. It is the nefarious tool that carves regular people into villains and fools. (One ‘Bachelor in Paradise’ contestant was edited to look as if she spoke to raccoons.) If the editing of ‘Dating Around’ is manipulative, it is a constructive kind of interference. Its montage technique injects mystery into an otherwise rote exercise. Though our daters are often following the same lines of questioning — where are you from, what do you do, what do you want? — the edit destabilises our perspective, so that we never know exactly who is on the other end of the conversation at any given moment. This converts the mildest of emotions into suspense: When a dater looks smote or miffed, we hold our breath until we discover who produced the feeling.
‘Dating Around’ has an eye for romance, and not just because it lingers on its daters’ coy glances. It zooms in on the most optimistic moment in a relationship (you met someone you might actually like!) and cuts away before the let-down (nevermind, he’s terrible!).
Each episode ends with a shot of the single person, shown now in the bright light of day, heading out for a second date with the chosen match, whose identity is revealed at a heart-stopping final moment. When widowed private investigator Leonard, a coffee in each hand, spots his choice across the street — it’s sign-language-fluent divorcee Dianna! — I gave my screen a standing ovation. And that’s it: The actual second date is not filmed. An anticlimactic reunion episode published on YouTube details the disappointment we’d encounter if we followed these relationships any further: Each one fizzled and faded.
That ‘Master of None’ episode took a satirical approach to dating apps, and it’s one that’s shared by many of their users. Tinder, Bumble and Hinge offer vast playing fields but slim pickings, so daters survive by wearing cynicism as armour, telling themselves that nothing matters and that they really don’t care. But ‘Dating Around’ dispels the nihilism haunting the dating app experience. By replicating its process and filming it for television, the show imbues it with great significance.
The level of interference in ‘Dating Around’ feels similar to that found on dating apps; whether by producer or by algorithm, strangers are selected to meet. In place of the brittle gender roles of ‘The Bachelor’, ‘Dating Around’ offers a melange of identities: There are people on the show who identify as straight, gay, bisexual, soft-aggressive, femme, dominant and stud; more than one has a drag persona. And if a dater shows up with an expertly waxed moustache or some underdeveloped flirtation skills, these quirks are not edited to loom grotesquely over their entire personalities; dates are awkward enough as they really are.
The show’s queasiest moments come when daters appear to be operating in a different reality television universe. One does not get the sense that Justin was sincerely chosen as a remotely likely love match for Gurki; Sarah, a technology recruiter, spits lines that feel so fastidiously rehearsed that they would not seem out of place on the ‘Next’ bus.
Critics of reality television harp on how unreal it all is. It can feel like the smart and knowing move for a show to lean into its artifice. Placing itself at a cynical remove pre-emptively guards against criticism. Nothing matters, and it doesn’t really care. But ‘Dating Around’ embraces its vulnerability, dangling in the space between documentary and drama.
Maybe the rise of dating apps has helped us come to terms with a touch of meddling in our romantic lives, and a little bit of performance in our courtship rituals. ‘Dating Around’ may be staged, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Don’t miss it!
‘Dating Around’ is streaming now on Netflix.