As anyone who has used Tinder already knows, it is just absolute hell. The app subjects its users to an unending carousel of humiliations: the simple sting of right-swiping someone who will not reciprocate and then waiting impotently for your phone’s little vibration of gratification; making a connection, only for it to asphyxiate on dead air after a couple of exchanges; a seemingly normal conversation hooking a hard left turn into indelicate sexual propositioning; the white-hot indignity of swiping past someone you knew from high school. Everyone is horrible, even the good people, even you, if for no other reason than condensing a personality into five photos and few lines of text makes a person seem boring at best, psychopathic at worst. Tinder is like a penalty for being alone where the punishment is further, more acute loneliness.
And yet upwards of 50 million people willingly undergo this self-esteem decimation because it’s not nearly as bad as actual dating.
“Hang the DJ” begins with the not entirely inaccurate notion that singles will put themselves through all manner of unpleasantness if they’re certain that their one true love is waiting on the other side. After all, aggravation over the randomness and happenstance of dating seeded the idea for Tinder as a way to streamline and refine the process of meeting people. That the app has found disproportionate success in comparison to browser-based coupling sites speaks to the paramount importance placed on speed — you’re going to die soon (or worse, get un-hot) so you gotta hook yourself a mate on the double. This episode does to algorithmic dating apps what “Nosedive” did to Uber, extending a techno-principle to its logical extreme and mounting a story on more human terms inside the thought experiment at hand. It’s not a big pill to swallow that a person would cede control over every aspect of their life in exchange for a guarantee; after all, we let Tinder drive us insane on the off chance that it might throw a suitable partner our way.
The automated matchmaker referred to as the System has integrated every last vertical of the dating experience as a means to securing the promise of a soul mate. The System distributes a gizmo that looks like a compact makeup case which guides clients to the System-owned restaurant where they have dinner with their date, after which they adjourn to a System-leased love nest for either intercourse or a brutally awkward absence of intercourse. The System determines how long its users shall remain involved with each successive prospect and forcibly separates them at the end of the set period, learning a little more about them with each encounter. And to ensure that it all goes smoothly, a large man with a taser follows users everywhere they go. You know, normal reasons.
Within these rigid parameters of courtship, writer Charlie Brooker assembles something closer to a comedy about romance than a proper rom-com. Like The Lobster except kind of pointless and exponentially dumber, “Hang the DJ” makes the implicit compulsory elements of dating frightfully explicit, with grim consequences awaiting those who dare to deviate. On their first date, Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) don’t exactly hit it off. They make one another laugh and each thinks the other is cute, but Frank’s a bit of a fumbler. Lacking in smooth moves, he drops his fork at dinner, makes a thing out of their seating arrangements, and turns sex into a nonstarter. But they share a sweet dynamic, and some tentative hand-holding while laying chastely in bed confirms they’d both be interested in exploring it further. The System, however, has decreed their carriage must turn back into a pumpkin at dawn. They go their separate ways, and so begins one roundabout journey to an unsatisfactory punch line.
Still, Brooker snags a few laughs in the lead-up by studiously capturing the tiny horrors of living with a significant other. In its infinite wisdom, the System binds Frank to a short-tempered woman, his worst conceivable match, for an entire year. It’s loathing at first sight, from her revulsion at his tikka masala to the withering reply of “…really?” when Frank tells her he was only late so he could change into something nice. While Frank is dubious that there’s something to be learned from watching him hate someone’s very essence for 52 long weeks, he soldiers on regardless. The exquisite anti-chemistry he shares with her is so specific and well-played that it nearly becomes its own form of chemistry.
Amy, meanwhile, hits the jackpot. She’s allotted years with a handsome charmer, his only apparent flaw being his habit of smacking his mouth in a contented ahh after taking a refreshing gulp of his beverage, or performing cunnilingus. Naturally, this flaw grows in size until it drives Amy up the wall. The implied lesson — that true perfection is somebody whose flaws you can come to accept — is just one of the episode’s numerous instructive beats about the proper method for finding that elusive true love.
Brooker works with a heavier hand than usual, chiseling his hidebound wisdom right into the script with each phase of the narrative. Amy’s rotation of brief hookups is fun until it’s not, a plain rephrasing of Andre 3000’s dictum that sex is always better when there’s feelings involved. Once Frank and Amy reenter one another’s orbits, he betrays her trust by checking the expiration date after they had agreed not to. The System summarily punishes him for that breach of honesty by cutting their time together down to nothing. Lying to your girlfriend is bad, it turns out!
Brooker’s final no-brainer is that love is worth fighting for, so illustrated by Frank and Amy’s realization that they can break out from the dictates of the System if they want to be together. They concur that their hearts shall shield them from the taser guy, though it also helps that he’s not real. None of them are; it’s all a simulation testing whether this virtual Frank and Amy would rebel against the System (a name I dislike a little more every time I type it) and run away together, which provides a data point used to gauge compatibility between the real Frank and Amy, who are just two jagwagons making eyes at a bar. Even setting aside the weird, redundant editing of this final scene, Brooker’s smarty-pants twist contributes nothing to the story. Outing his characters as a visual representation of an algorithm winds up robbing the episode of whatever depth it possessed up to that point. It’s a belly flop of an ending, a hornier digital take on “it was all a dream.” Brooker set up a romance worth investing in, wherein two people patiently carved out love from insecurity and timidity. Pulling back the frame to reveal it as the prelude to a sloppy hookup just undoes what was previously a sound emotional current. There’s simply no room for poetry on Tinder.