Format: Web Series
Movie Rated: 18+
Genre: Lifestyle, Romance, Reality-TV
Digital Premiere Date: 12 June 2020
It was sometime during the fourth episode of Dating Around Season 2 when I had to take a few minutes to wonder what it is that makes dating games (on television) so obsessive and addictive to audiences worldwide. From The Dating Game to The Bachelor, right through Indian variations of swayamvars to the more voyeuristic and disturbing modern-look at what happens when you put a bunch of attractive people in one bungalow at the beach (there are literally too many shows of this kind to name one), the audience really laps up the idea of two (or more) real people meeting and falling in love, while we get to be a part of every twist and turn that story takes. With the advent of dating apps, perhaps the ‘romance’ of falling in love is more on the lines of playing a game, and Netflix’s show really allows viewers to immerse themselves into a watchable experience of that sort, all while giving it a strangely nauseating Groundhog Day kind of treatment.
What is the Story About
A young single person goes on five separate blind dates. All these dates are put together and shown by progress through the night, not one whole date at a time, which gives us a look at how different people connect on such a ritual. The venue is the same, the clothes are the same, one personality is the same, but the outcome differs each time. Imagine a Black Mirror episode about your dating app chats, except it mostly has a happy ending. The only twist at the end is that we get to see one ‘day after/week after,’ one person that our main protagonist has chosen to call again and meet a second time around.
The thing that sets Dating Around apart from its contemporaries is basically on two accounts: firstly, the show steers clear of all such histrionics that usually make for a reality-show staple. None of the five dates is competing for the affections of our lead. They’re all real people who have come to enjoy one blind date. There is no unnecessary crying and melodrama, no mind games, and no one has to answer silly questions about ‘how well they know each other.’ And secondly, each episode is standalone, which means that we don’t have to wait weeks for the bachelor to pick his bride. Really, it’s all about finding one good connection that could be taken a bit further than a capsule date night, and whether it’s staged or not, our person usually manages to find that one special. While season 1 was set in New York, this one has a few cameras pointing towards our person in the middle of New Orleans. There is no host to provide exposition, and no one to take a teary-eyed or gleeful interview at the end. Just one person holding the fort.
We also see the show encompassing the gender and sexuality spectrum significantly. Deva Mahal, daughter of renowned blues performer ‘Taj Mahal,’ is openly bisexual (although she doesn’t believe in labels) and doesn’t see eye-to-eye with one of her suitors who are polyamorous but forbids his bisexual female partners from dating others. We also don’t get stereotypical personalities. Shy and unassuming Ben is a professor at the University and shows a lot of anxiety while on his date. But he does find an unlikely partner who shares his love for musical theatre. Heather is the ultimate animal-lover who might have been paired with the one guy who shows no love to God’s furry creatures. And just because Justin has felt like an outsider being a second-generation Filipino, doesn’t mean he’s going to get along famously with a second-generation Vietnamese woman. There are make out sessions, flirting, arguments and even crying, but nothing to put you off too much.
Yet, in spite of the subtlety, there is still an undertone of discomforting non-realism while watching something like Dating Around. The way the show is edited, especially since you are watching a similar progression (even in terms of moving from one location to another) five times over, makes you feel like it's mechanical from the person who has had to do it repeatedly. To be fair, the daters mention this sometimes, talking about whether they’ve used apps or other modern dating techniques. At the end of the date, the lead usually asks his/her date if they’d like to a) continue the date further, or b) exchange phone numbers or c) be left home. On very rare occasions are dates leaving mid-way or saying point-blank that they don’t see any future in the courtship. Is it not at all possible that love is a game, and that none of these are suitable options? Or to take it a step further, perhaps you’re better off swiping right on someone else completely?
The fact that these people are on camera must have some repercussion on their reactions, as much as it does on the viewers. Whether we choose to trash them or not, there is still a certain advantage of watching an over-the-top reality show - the assumption that it holds no realism, no values to emulate - just watch, laugh and throw. The fact that we have this voyeuristic insight into the emotional investment that dating requires on usually kind-hearted people isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially since we know that this is a game where many levels are being crossed for an uncertain (perhaps, non-existent) reward. As a reality show viewer, what kind of investment is this show expecting from us? Not much apart from one right swipe.
Using usually cosmopolitan cities is advantageous in the fact that the people chosen are from all walks of life and have a variety of opinions and preferences to share on very serious topics. For a casual first date, people usually end up talking about previous heartbreaks, family, children, faith and political beliefs, and other long-term decisions that make or break relationships. And in any case, it is good to see people from different cultures, ethnicities and spectrums generally meet and connect for good conversation. But it’s not like the show chooses to push the envelope there and see people really crank their disagreements a notch. Everything is ‘nice’ and the worst that could happen is that your Lyft/Uber drops you home alone instead of someone in the taxi with you.
At the end of that series of ‘nice’ dates, it may seem more of an obligation to share a number than a genuine desire. None of the couples can even fathom spending the night with each other, some are even prudish about kissing on the first date. This is less a judgement on them as much as it seems made-up for the nature of the show. By the end of the dates, the proceedings seem too monotonous and repetitive. The least we could have is the illusion of a happy ending but even that isn’t guaranteed - this is ‘real’ TV, not reality TV.
Music and Other Departments
For a real-life show, there is a dream-like quality to the way it's set up. Each episode starts and ends with an anthem of hope and love, usually describing the dater’s personality. The last one fades out to a happy couple walking away hand-in-hand like at the end of a rom-com. The cameras are placed to give the suggestion that we’re watching the date night in a movie scene.
Did I Enjoy It?
Somewhat. It gets dull and boring after a point. The novelty is only in the initial premise of the show. And once you are a few episodes in, the realization that this is real and without certainty makes it a bit pointless to be that invested in.
Do I Recommend It?
If you are a fan of social experiment shows more than dating shows, you can give this one a shot. But don’t expect some great revelations, just some middling temporary coupling.