“Frog with no legs is deaf,” says Leonard. He says it to four different women: Leonard, who looks strikingly like another Jewish Leonard, Cohen, tells the same joke about a Swedish biologist and a frog to four out of his five dates on Netflix’s new New York-based reality show Dating Around.
First dates can be a real factory line. We hammer out the same jokes and anecdotes to different people in a way that becomes almost mechanical. We ask the same questions. We have the same argument about splitting the bill. I’ve lost count, for example, of the number of times I’ve exchanged pet photos and coming out stories on first dates (some lesbian stereotypes are justifiable). Dating Around is the first show I’ve seen that really nails this monotony.
And “monotony” may be a strange word to use in relation to a show I think is good, but there’s a raw honesty to Dating Around, that’s missing from a lot of more contrived reality shows. The programme’s premise is simple. In each episode, we’re shown one single person on five first dates with five different people. Moments from each date are seamlessly intercut with each other – so we hear, say, one story pieced together as it’s told to multiple people.
Aside from a brief description of the featured single by one of their friends at the start of the show, there’s no voiceover and no set pieces to camera. This distinguishes Dating Around from one of its British counterparts, First Dates, in that – just like the participants in the show – we’re going in blind. There’s no sensationalist, “Oh no she’s vegan and they’ve set her up with a butcher. How is this going to play out?” aspect. So the tense moments, of which there are many, come as a genuine surprise. Just like in real life.
In one such moment, which recently went viral, Gurki – a professional buyer in her mid-thirties – is aggressively confronted by her date, Justin, about her divorce. Justin, whose Gavin McInnes haircut maybe should’ve been a red flag, demonstrates the cultural sensitivity of a pig at a bar mitzvah, when Gurki tries to explain the pressure – for those who have a traditional Sikh Indian upbringing – to get married.
Justin, upon announcing that he could never trust Gurki, nearly flips the table. Gurki, unsurprisingly, looks like she’s holding back tears. This is genuinely hard to watch. But it’s also a revealing look – especially for someone like me who hasn’t dated men in a decade – into just how scary it can be. In a less dramatic but similarly eye-opening moment, dater Sarah ups and leaves her dinner with a guy who won’t stop making stomach-churningly cringy sexual innuendos.
But, alongside the “Christ, what a shit show” of it all, there are fun and even quite moving moments. Like when we see what it’s like for Leonard to look for a partner for the first time since losing his wife to cancer. Or when Charlotte and Mila bond over coming out stories (yes really, this is a thing we very much do), and tipsily flirt next to an ice cream truck. I was reminded of some of the best dates I’ve been on and was – frankly – on the point of thanking god that I only date women.
In terms of the daters’ ethnicity and sexuality, Dating Around is refreshingly diverse. Peter and Lex share experiences of being “gaysians”, and Jarry gives some insight into the preconceived notions people have, on the queer dating scene, about bisexuals. Which certainly makes up for the first episode in which a conventionally attractive real estate agent (I’m afraid there are several of these) called Luke is paired with five equally conventionally attractive women.
In fact, this episode highlighted a slightly uncanny side to the show. There’s something about the high production value and the seamless editing from date to date which makes it seem overly luscious and possibly fake. I’ll admit that I felt prompted to Google whether the people in the show are actors. They appear not to be. And – as I mentioned earlier – the content as opposed to the production seems realistic and genuine.
Dating Around’s lack of gimmicks and manufactured drama is what makes it a real anomaly within its genre. Even the “big reveal” at the end of each episode, in which we see who has been chosen for a second date, is handled in a fairly low-key way. Inasmuch as a reality dating show can be revolutionary… it sort of is.