The past is another country: the television is strange and it is hard to have any sympathy with the people who lived there, no matter how much you might have in common with them.
During my second year at secondary school, my oldest friend was struck down with a mysterious illness and as a result ended up spending some time as an in-patient at University College Hospital. Obviously, this came with a number of downsides, but one major boon: the television screen at the foot of his bed, which included a far wider range of television channels than the four and a half available at home.
After school, I would visit him and we would watch a series of trashy television programmes, of which Date My Mom was the best, or depending on your perspective, the worst.
The format was simple: a man in his early twenties called something astonishingly American like Caleb or Brayden would go on a date with three different mothers and on the back of that, choose which one of their daughters he wanted to go on a “proper” date with.
Date My Mom was a show with two acts: the first, which comprised most of the programme, was devoted to the date between the moms and Caleb. In the second act, young Brayden would meet the three mothers on a beach, and reveal his reasoning as to which one of the daughters he wanted to meet, turning down the defeated mothers one by one until only his chosen mom was left.
But to add to the drama, as each matriarch was rejected, her daughter would step from the accompanying limousine (I promise I am not making this up) and Caleb would see what he could have won before finally getting to the winning mom-spawn.
Brayden would follow one of two strategies. The first involved just flat-out asking the mothers a series of personal and intrusive questions about their child: is she moody? Is she high maintenance? Is she down to bang? The second would involve treating the date as an entirely serious endeavour and drawing conclusions about the daughter’s dateability by inference.
And the mothers had different strategies too. Some very earnestly talked up their daughters’ extra-curriculars and music tastes. Others bragged about their daughters’ figures. In one episode that is etched upon my memory, a woman compared her own daughter to Dolly Parton and mimed fondling a pair of large breasts.
The best episodes, from our perspective, were those in which one of the daughters was significantly less attractive than the others. (I did say this was a story without any sympathetic characters.) We always hoped that Caleb would end up disappointed, and felt robbed if at the end of the half an hour programme, Brayden walked off into the sunset without regrets.
Rewatching the programme now, I am astonished – even by the standards of the time – just how obviously scripted the final scenes are, and how painfully dull the dates are. Even the cringeworthy spectacle of a mother miming her child’s curves can’t elevate this stuff. The show didn’t even make any pretence at letting viewers know how the final date between Caleb and his chosen daughter went.
It’s quite easy as an adult to forget how crushingly dull teenage life can be even when your best friend isn’t laid up in a hospital bed: the number of places you can just be is vanishingly small, you’re too old to play and too young to really do anything else, so you just loiter. No wonder Date My Mom seemed like a good time. Even by the standards of a low-budget reality TV show, Date My Mom was truly the pits: but I’ll always have a soft spot for the respite it provided during a difficult time.
Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.