“There are lots of things I wouldn’t share on a first date … I’m not as adventurous as you, I guess,” mulls a woman. “That’s okay,” her date replies. “I hope my comment about kids didn’t scare you.” She says it didn’t, but whether that’s entirely the truth remains unclear. The conversation had been amiable enough, but something’s just not clicking.
In This Is Dating, a voyeuristic new podcast series that invites listeners to eavesdrop on virtual blind dates as they happen, things can get slippery. Conversations drift between strain and delight; chemistry slides all over the place. Cringing and awkwardness is to be expected — after all, we’re talking blind dates here. More specifically, we’re talking virtual blind dates, where a few strangers are calling the shots, the whole thing is being recorded, and the conversation is expected to be released for widespread consumption later.
So goes This Is Dating, which takes the popular reality dating-show format and runs the whole thing through an inquisitive, feelings-first filter. The podcast’s debut season, which kicked off earlier this week, follows four singles — Virginia, Aziz, Khan, and Amanda (not their real names) — on dates that are facilitated by the show’s producers. There is a pedagogical bent to the proceedings: Dating coach and behavioral scientist Logan Ury provides the singles with counseling between dates and, by extension, lessons for the audience to take into their own lives.
Podcasting isn’t particularly scarce with shows about dating and its related concepts: sex, relationships, love. Whether you’re looking for something highbrow (Modern Love), something not-so-highbrow (Call Her Daddy, I guess?), or something overtly educational (The Savage Lovecast), these areas have long been rich territory for discussion, storytelling, and content. Indeed, even the notion of building a podcast around virtual dates isn’t all that novel. In 2020, at least three audio projects with a similar premise were released, including Parcast’s Blind Dating, which really amps up its reality television inspirations; House of Pod’s LoveSick, a charming albeit shaggy independent take on the concept; and The Guardian’s short-run adaptation of its Blind Date column.
But This Is Dating’s emphasis on the psychology of it all brings some heft to the mix, pushing the concept into what feels like fresher territory. The series comes from Magnificent Noise, the studio notable for its work originating Where Should We Begin?, the acclaimed couples-therapy podcast featuring famed relationship psychologist Esther Perel. The shared DNA between the productions is easily discernible. Both are compelling consumer showcases for therapy (albeit therapy packaged as a kind of spectacle), and both draw power from the voyeuristic thrill of observing intimate, private scenarios. To speak in the modern language of cinematic franchises, Where Should We Begin? and This Is Dating can be described as feeling like part of the same aesthetic universe: The former is a therapy show for couples, the latter for singles. If you enjoy one, you’re almost certainly going to like the other.
The tape in This Is Dating is undeniably captivating. How could it not be? The podcast delivers on the same vicarious thrill as eavesdropping on first dates out in the wild, where you, as the intruding observer, end up trying to read each individual as they try to read each other. Is there a possible future in play? Are these two people really on the same wavelength? Did she really find that joke funny? Is he just being polite? What’s the best outcome here? Also: What would I have done in that situation? At its best, the podcast channels the traditional reality dating show’s distinct appeal as a pseudo-spectator sport (“I would’ve taken more initiative in coordinating dinner,” or so I thought watching the first episode of Single’s Inferno on Netflix recently), but without the plastic artifice that’s so ubiquitous in the genre on TV.
This Is Dating’s episodes are guided along by Jesse Baker and Hiwote Getaneh, producers on the show, who perform multiple overlapping duties in the same breath. (The podcast is produced by Eleanor Kagan, instrumental to last year’s Welcome to Your Fantasy.) They act as the show’s de facto hosts, game masters, and Greek chorus, collectively taking on the responsibility of introducing the singles to the audience, managing the dates by seeding the conversation with questions, and dispensing commentary to listeners as the dates play out. In totality, these elements can make the show feel a little too busy at times. There were a few instances throughout the four episodes made available for preview where the producers’ active play-by-play got in the way of digesting my own feelings about what I was hearing.
That overactivity extends to the psychology stuff as well, at some cost to its participants. “I think you only like people who don’t like you, and if somebody likes you, they become ineligible, and with that pattern it’s really hard to get into a relationship,” the dating coach tells Aziz early in the second episode. Khan, the focal point of the third episode, is presented as being prone to “love bombing,” a behavioral habit that involves efforts to continuously shower another person with excessive affection to forge a sense of dependency. The foregrounding of various psychological concepts is much of the point here, but it does sometimes feel like the singles end up being primarily framed as representations of a problem. I wonder if a more elegant method is possible.
Still, it’s no deal-breaker. This Is Dating is a fascinating show that tries to offer a radically fresh look at modern dating, and it largely succeeds … well, to my married-for-almost-a-decade ears at least. Speaking from the outside looking in, I can’t deny the universal attraction of what the podcast is selling. What are we but lonely, fleshy creatures looking for a genuine connection?
The series brings to mind my favorite entry in the vast universe of reality dating shows: Netflix’s Dating Around. Atypical among its genre in many ways, that show similarly follows a collection of blind first dates. Dating Around is kaleidoscopic. Each episode is structured around a series of first dates by the same individual that are intercut between and layered within each other, resulting in an effect that feels like you’re being shown several parallel universes happening at the same time. Yet despite its trippy presentation, the show is remarkably naturalistic and ultimately gets at the fundamental feeling of possibility that energizes first dates. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn’t appear to have green-lit another season of Dating Around, but a similar electricity can be found in This Is Dating. It might be a little clunky in its debut incarnation, but as a replacement it will do nicely.