reality tv

Netflix’s Dating Around Is a Sneakily Great Reality Show

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

It takes a little while for Dating Around to hook you. Its editing, its premise, its cast members — everything about Netflix’s new dating reality show slides off the brain at first, creating almost no impression. The first episode features a blandly attractive white guy named Luke from New York City who works in real estate. He goes on a date with five attractive women. The episode’s “big” reveal comes at the end, when Luke decides which of the five women he wants to take on a second date. And that’s it.

There are no dramatic elimination ceremonies. There are no talking-head interviews where the cast dishes about their feelings as prompted by unseen producers. There is no host. There are no voice-overs. No one gets into a helicopter or bungees off the side of a bridge or stares down her direct competition across the table. It’s just someone going on several first dates, and then deciding whether they want to see one of those people again. That’s why, after that first episode, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, other than, “Oh, this is light and fun.”

By episode three, I had decided it was deceptively appealing. By episode four, I realized I’d forgotten to pick up my child from school.

At that point, the addictive secret of Dating Around was clear: It recognizes how much romance-related reality television has left on the table — how many kinds of human experience are rarely highlighted on The Bachelor or Millionaire Matchmaker or 90 Day Fiancé or Married at First Sight or Are You the One — and it seizes what those other shows typically ignore. Sure, Dating Around is still limited in scope in its own way. It’s all set in New York, featuring very New York discussions about real estate and how expensive things are and how long everyone has lived in the city. But it takes advantage of the gaps other dating shows leave unconsidered. Only one of the season’s six episodes features a straight, white, millennial man going on dates with women. Many of the singles featured are people of color; two of the episodes are about queer people. Episode four, my favorite of the bunch, is about a widower in his 60s — a private eye, no less! — who insists on telling the same very bad joke about a frog on several of his dates.

The breadth of the cast is good for Dating Around, and not just because it makes the show a natural fit within Netflix’s developing genre of reality shows about being happy and leading a good life. The breadth is good because it makes the show better. Although the episodes follow the same format of drinks, dinner, and a potential after-dinner drink, cutting between five different dates, the rhythm and tone of each is distinct. The tensions and intimacies are different. The date with an older man who has to talk about his deceased wife while getting to know a new person involves completely different feelings from the date with a young gay woman who makes a joke about scissoring. They’re both different from the date with a young straight woman, who ends the night abruptly after deciding the man across from her would be a terrible match. She sits by herself at the bar for a minute and sighs, “My God, I’m going to go home and masturbate.”

Dating Around also manages to escape one of the biggest pitfalls of its glossy, highly-produced look. Much of its visual DNA comes from The Hills tradition of reality shows: snappily edited sequences that look as posed as fashion shoots and conversations chopped into meaning-laden arcs, bookended by music cues that slather mood onto otherwise underwhelming footage. The risk is that the show falls into an uncanny valley where its more-polished-than-reality realism makes everything seem mannered and surreal and weird. That was certainly the case for another Netflix reality show, Westside, which could never decide if it wanted to tell a story or just have its attractive musicians pose suggestively against artsily be-stickered lamp posts. That influence is palpable in Dating Around, but it’s mostly limited to the opening and closing sequences. The bulk of the date footage is unmarred by lens flare or intrusive musical inserts, leaving viewers with the unmediated awkwardness of a young woman who instructs her date on how to chew his food, or a guy who scolds his date about her divorce. It also leaves viewers with a persuasive sense of a palpable spark when, say, one of the guys makes his date laugh.

The show feels spare and casual, and although there are absolutely some moments of tension, it is mostly concerned with having a chill, nice time. In the growing genre of nice, happy reality shows, Dating Around is a series where people are allowed to date one another without being forced into perilously high-stakes situations, and where none of the cast members seem to be there because a producer suspects they might fight someone. There’s not even a sense that any of these people will love one another. Dating Around only asks for the possibility that someone might enjoy another person’s company and see a possibility for more. Given the state of high-concept, high-risk romance shows, that may be enough to pass for “nice.”

The almost aggressively low stakes are also the show’s one major weakness. Dating Around’s main tension is, essentially, “Which of these five people might get a second date?” but the premise also means we’ll never see any of these people again, or get to know where any of this went after the fact. A more addictive version of Dating Around would follow a few of the featured singles past their second dates, or would at least include an update episode to check in how how things went. As it is, there’s nothing to pull you from one episode to the next, no personalities that return, no growing attachments to specific relationships.

Without those elements, we will instead have to enjoy what we have: a not-quite-as-addictive dating show, which promises you won’t finish an episode feeling that gnawing hole in your gut over someone’s life-ruining romantic train wreck. It is a little window into many people’s lives, of many different backgrounds and orientations, as they go on many first dates. I suspect its six short episodes will go down very quickly and very smoothly this Valentine’s Day weekend, and if none of it much sticks with you, then no harm done. But if you do watch it, and find that it’s the first reality show you’ve seen that portrays two women talking about whether they’re attracted to butch or stem partners, or that shows a sparkling, truly sexy date between 60-year-olds, or that features a frank conversation between two gay men about their preferred sexual positions? All the better.

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Dating Around Is a Sneakily Great Reality Show