Television has treated dating like a game since, well, The Dating Game. Each generation finds an era-appropriate kind of competitive romance. The game shows of 20th-century networks presented the hunt for love as communal, lighthearted, and blessedly straightforward. For the aughts, reality TV made sport of anxiety-producing cultural pressures—courtship is not only battling for the best mate, but also battling to live the great Stepford dream!—via dental hygienists in swimsuits and ex–football players named Colton.
Now it’s apps like Tinder that have gamified romance. But rather than contend in a cheesy quiz show or an overproduced melodrama, singles chase dopamine as they would in addictive video games. This is what Netflix’s refreshing and distressing new show Dating Around nails—both in what it portrays, and in the viewing experience. An elegantly shot entry in a mayhem-filled TV tradition, it might lead watchers of a certain age to yelp “Next!” at their screens. Yet it also extends a headier pop-culture fascination: the suspicion that we live in a simulation. If Dating Around has an eerie tinge of Black Mirror or Westworld or Russian Doll, so too does modern dating.
In each episode, the co-creators Paul Franklin and Chris Culvenor simply point cameras at one New Yorker on a series of blind dates. The twist comes in the editing. The “main character” lives through what looks like the same date—same pseudo-chic restaurant, wearing the same smart outfit—with each suitor, whom the show cuts together in a seamless, albeit head-spinning, collage. A boilerplate question (Where do you live? Are we eating these summer rolls with chopsticks or what?) might trigger a montage of answers from the different daters. Or the editors might slow down, letting a particular back-and-forth unspool at length. At the end, the main subject meets up for a second rendezvous with his or her favorite suitor.
No manipulative interviews, no skydiving challenges, and really no pressure for long-term connection: The extent to which the show forgoes Bachelor-isms is disorienting. Instead, Dating Around piles on excruciating, relatable awkwardness. Participants say um and like. They talk over each other. They smack their lips, gab while chewing, and check their phones. Though cringey, the gaffes bolster the sense that genuine interaction is being portrayed. Some daters immediately click, and it’s as satisfying as when an iPhone purrs upon being plugged in. Some cock their heads and stammer for comprehension, Captain Picard-and-the-Tamarians style. Some grate and offend, with politesse blurring into sniping, and the promise of new love curdling—somewhat excitingly, it must be said—into the threat of hatred.
Yet for all the vérité of the aesthetic, there’s a spookiness to Dating Around, too. More than one dater recycles jokes across multiple encounters, robotlike. (Most amusing/egregious is Leonard, an otherwise charming 70-year-old whose overlong bit about dissecting frogs so annoys one dining partner that she gives him a simpler joke to use in the future.) Daters casually offer that they know of a post-dinner place around the corner—a cocktail bar, a dessert truck—and steer the date there again and again. There’s also a whisper of surrealism in the editing: rainstorms cutting in and out at the same venue, or a full moon lighting multiple sidewalk canoodles. Maybe, the thought could occur, these aren’t real people, but the work of very advanced CGI.
The daters might wonder the same thing. Though they did not meet on Tinder, they often banter about the glitchy circularity of modern courtship: the suspicion that someone better is always waiting behind the next swipe, the need to reuse the same restaurants and the same moves, the purgatory of being stuck for the evening with someone who’s wrong from the first hug. There’s even a gamelike air to the kicker of each episode, in which chipper Spotify-core blares as the daters await their prize person on sunny, crowded New York streets. Whereas the rest of the show alternates between the tedium and thrill of documentary, the closing is pure cutscene, as if a level has been completed.
If Dating Around renders dating a role-playing game, though, it’s one saved by the role players. The first episode inauspiciously stars a real-estate broker named Luke whose mildness of manner begins to play like parody, and the primary entertainment comes from him struggling to match the energy of the lively women across from him. Happily, subsequent episodes diversify their main subjects not only in gender, sexuality, and age, but also in personalities. The suitors are a panoply, though of a distinctly New York City sort: property bros, fashion-industry mystics, jaunty entertainers. Most exhibit a hyper-cosmopolitan, inside-jokey self-awareness, though often with comic blind spots (who meeting for a date in Brooklyn hasn’t heard of Narragansett beer?). It’d be nice if future seasons made like Queer Eye and headed to the heartland to compare affects.
The remarkable thing that emerges about NYC, though, is the possibility of connection—and clashes—across cultures, tastes, and ethics. And while the show doesn’t overtly chase sociopolitical controversy, a certain amount of think-piece fodder is inherent. The quirkier hetero women constantly apologize for having a personality; the reactions of the men explain why they feel that need. The queer folks lock into a camaraderie—or at least a reference palette—that cuts some of the tension marking the straight dates. The season’s “viral moment” comes when Gurki, a 36-year-old Indian American woman, sits down with Justin, a 34-year-old white fashy-wearer who rudely denounces her for having previously married someone she had doubts about. “By all means, exit,” she says—her first-date propriety charged with new rancor—as he leaves.
None of the other situations are quite as dramatic as that, though there are frank confrontations, You’re just not my type grimaces, and nicked egos. Conversely, the participants might get a welcomed kiss or a nice compliment. Some even—stay with me—seem to simply start enjoying themselves in the moment. But the big reward is just a second date. What propels these people to the meet-up, and viewers to the next episode, feels like the same thing that defines any good Netflix binge, or Tinder swipe-athon, or Candy Crush spiral. It’s a game, but one you’re only dimly aware can ever end.