How Dating Around Convinced ‘Ordinary’ People to Try Reality TV

Photo: Netflix

Yes, Netflix’s Dating Around is yet another reality show about dating and romance. But as Dating Around executive producer Chris Culvenor and the series’ showrunner Alycia Rossiter tell it, they set out to make a different kind of dating show, one that featured a broader spectrum of people, that didn’t rely on the genre’s usual tricks, and that would cast the kinds of people who would’ve never otherwise considered being on reality TV.

Earlier this week, Culvenor and Rossiter talked to Vulture about how tricky it was to cast people for the show, what actually happened between the dates, and how each dater chose who they wanted to see again. Rossiter, who spend a decade as a producer on The Bachelor, also explained why she’d vowed never to work on a dating show again after leaving the Bachelor franchise, and how Dating Around managed to change her mind.

How did you develop the show? Where did the idea come from?
Culvenor: We were speaking to Netflix very early on about what a dating show for 2019 would look like, and we knew we didn’t want to rehash all the reality-show tropes that’d been done for years and years. We wanted to look at the dating landscape in 2019, and give an honest glimpse of what it’s like to be single in a world of infinite apps and infinite choices. We didn’t want to present a cast you’d see on every other reality dating show out there. We wanted to offer up a diversity of the characters — different backgrounds, different ethnicities, gay, straight, a whole range of different people. That allowed us to show the distinct differences between how people date, but also the universalities, too.

Rossiter: I have a dating-show background. I did a decade on The Bachelor and all of its spinoff-y shows. I decided to leave three years ago, and I decided to never do another dating show. Basically every creator of a dating show had come to me to see if I was interested in their shows. I’d say no, and I’d say no, and I was so sure of myself that I was right that I never wanted to do another one.

And then Chris [Culvenor] and [Dating Around executive producer] Paul [Franklin] came to me with this one. I thought, Oh, they’re two straight dudes, and that’s who always makes up dating shows. It’s gonna be like all the others. We got along really well in our interview and I said to them, “I am interested if you will let me work with gay people, and especially with older people.” It’s never what the creators of shows or buyers of shows are interested in doing, investigating the stories of people who aren’t traditional television fodder. Seniors, not older people who are 40 like me, seniors, who are often overlooked. They’ve become invisible not just on TV, but in our world. They’re still sexy! They deserve romantic love!

Could you tell me about the process of casting the show?
Rossiter: Audiences, whether they realize it or not, are ready for a new type of unscripted television. The old mantra inside the business was, we’d take ordinary people and put them in extraordinary circumstances. We’d put them on a desert island to win a million dollars, or we’d put them on fantasy dates in helicopters to see if they’d fall in love. What we want now are ordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

One of the things that helped us to find people is that Netflix had carved out a brand already that was non-exploitative — a little smarter, a little cooler, a little more sophisticated. We had casting people go out on the streets of New York, we had posted fliers, and people were more interested in the notion of doing a Netflix show. What would this more “woke” outlet do with the topic of dating? The other thing is that we asked our casting directors not just go to bars and nightclubs. We went to bridge clubs, we went to libraries, we went to bookstores, we tried to go to places that weren’t necessarily top-level meat-market destinations.

When you’re casting, you also have to find dates who might be compatible matches, right?
Rossiter: I didn’t want to matchmake on this show. We, as individuals, are often on Tinder or an equivalent type of dating app, and we think we know what we’re looking for. We have this data preselected in our head. He should be this tall, he should have this color skin, he should be more or less within this weight range, his job should allow me to think that he makes between this and this, he should live in this borough of New York City. And if he’s all of those things, because I’m a straight woman, I’ll swipe. And we’ve gotten lost in prescreening our dates.

So I asked our daters to just trust meeting a stranger. I wasn’t going to ask them 10,000 questions like, “Do you love dogs? Are you allergic to eggs? How much money to do you make?” Because those questions need to be asked at the table in conversation. I guess I’m a little bit old-school.

What were the biggest challenges in making this show? What surprised you while you were putting it together?
Rossiter: Casting was really hard because we were looking for people who wouldn’t normally do this, and that doesn’t just mean people that might not trust an outfit like Netflix. It was also people who weren’t looking for attention. Or people who don’t see faces like their own on TV. That was the thing that surprised me the most, the number of people who were like, “I never thought I’d be approached to be on a dating show. I’m a gay guy.” Or, “I’m a lesbian.” The lesbians were even more stressed than the gay guys were. And certainly the older people were like, “When I tell my friends about this, they think it’s the craziest thing that has ever happened.”

When you approach a 20-year-old blonde girl that’s a size two and dancing in a nightclub, and you say, “Hey, do you want to be in my date show?” she’s like, “Eh, somebody asked me yesterday, I’m not interested.” Do you know what I mean?

I do!
Rossiter: So we had to go find people because they didn’t answer the ads. They didn’t put themselves in the box that you tick for a dating show.

Culvenor: We really wanted to look for people who wouldn’t go on shows like this. But that’s a brush that we painted across every aspect of the show. Even the directors were people who came from more scripted and cinematic background. The way we approached the music wasn’t the traditional reality-show cues. The post-production things were obviously done distinctly different from other shows. Editing in a very nonlinear way — telling a compelling story that made sense while also jumping across five timelines — was really challenging. We were lucky to have an amazing post-production team to help figure out this fantastic jigsaw of all these amazing moments and connections and awkward encounters that have to be pieced together to create a seamless dreamscape of a night.

Rossiter: The volume rarely, maybe once or twice, went up to ten in terms of some dramatic cliffhanger moment. We stood back, we put cameras on a table, and we let the conversation and the connection or lack of connection unfold. There were times when we wrapped and we would have this moment of glee, of, Nothing happened, and yet so many things happened! This show let us be regular humans celebrating those normal highs and lows from which you survive, but you might call your best friend and talk a lot about them.

Unlike pretty much every other dating show, this one doesn’t do any talking-head interviews. Was that baked into the premise from the beginning?
Culvenor: It was, but I will say the producer inside of us at times was just like, Wow, this edit would be so much easier if we just had an interview. We had to fight that instinct, because we knew that’s the great and terrifying thing about going on a first date. You’re sitting opposite someone, and you might know what they’re saying, but you have no idea what’s going on in their head. To truly capture a dating experience, we wanted to not give the audience that cheat, where you cut away to another day in a private room where they can speak freely. We wanted to stay in those moments.

Rossiter: I never wanted to do one interview. It was part of what I didn’t want to do, and I just can’t thank Chris and Paul and Netflix enough for letting us not do “just in case” interviews. There was so much support to let the experiment truly have wings and not clip them before we even started to fly.

Culvenor: That was a real credit to Netflix for trusting us. A lot of other outlets wouldn’t have had that same trust and wouldn’t have taken that risk.

How did it actually work between when they go on the first dates and then pick a second date? Did they tell you who they were going to pick? Did you talk with them? How much time passes?
Rossiter: We worked with the lead daters for a week. We asked them to take off work — which, I’ll say that’s probably the most unrealistic aspect of the show. Most people can’t go on five dates in five nights and still handle the regularities of their everyday life. Within that week, they told their friends and family and their employers that their first priority was this show, and they went on their dates and met all the strangers. Then they told us which person they wanted to go on their second date with, and that was the final shoot that we did with them.

Do you know if they were texting each other in between their first dates and the second date?
Rossiter: Oh yeah! The millennials were texting more than the non-millennials were texting. Most people, if they were asked, did give [out their] numbers. Most of them did text a little bit after. But the choice of the second date was based mostly on who they had the most fun with in the face-to-face part.

So it wasn’t like it is on The Bachelor, where they have to give up all social media and ability to access the outside world.
Rossiter: That’s right. I did talk to them as I would talk to you, and if you felt like telling me that somebody texted you and you guys are rampantly texting, I’d love to hear it. If you didn’t feel like telling me, that’s okay too.

Are we going to get an update on what’s happened since everyone’s second dates?
Rossiter: Yeah, Netflix is getting a few people together to talk about what their lives are looking like now that we shot it. But I’m amazed how results-oriented people are in this. I feel partially guilty, like maybe my old job [on The Bachelor] has forced people to think that. The fact that everybody wants to know what’s happening now, and what’s going on now, it feels so unromantic to me. The show, for me, was about romance and possibility and a moment of connection when you have dinner with one person for one night. Maybe I was unlucky until I found the love of my life, who I’m with now, but a first date to me was never a disappointment if it didn’t end up in a five-year love affair. It was just a wonderful evening, you know? And I’m so interested that so many people are like, “What happened? What’s going on? Are they in love?”

We’ve been taught to expect long story arcs in reality TV, and Dating Around refuses to give you those.
Rossiter: For me, that’s the beauty that got me so excited with Chris and Paul’s show. I love to go out with my husband, and I’ll look around the restaurant to see who’s on a date and eavesdrop, and then I’ll never see those people again. I love listening to them, and I love looking over at the hand reaching across, and trying to figure out if it’s their first date or if they’re a couple already. That’s what I hoped the viewing experience would be — the couple at the next table. They’re not jumping off a bridge with bungee cords, you know? They’re just hanging out.

How Dating Around Got ‘Ordinary’ People to Try Reality TV