Luke is at an upscale Thai restaurant in Brooklyn, making small talk over dinner with his blind date about where she’s from.
“I’m from Colombia, I’ve been here 9 years already,” she says, pointing out her accent. Seconds later, he's seated across from a different woman at the same restaurant.
“I’m from Massachusetts originally. I’m a Masshole,” she says, laughing. Then it happens again.
“Jersey girl. But not like Jersey Shore, though,” another woman says, quick to make that distinction.
Thanks to the editing tricks of Netflix’s new reality show Dating Around, we have the absolutely boring privilege of watching all of Luke’s first dates unfold simultaneously as if we are eavesdropping from the next table. That's right: You can now bear witness from the comfort of your couch as two strangers patter through mundane questions about their jobs, where they live, and what they like to eat in an effort to find something, anything, that connects them.
But although it's bland and even painful at times to watch, I can’t stop watching. I’m reminded of that sitcom trope where the character has two dates in one night, but it’s five dates and he’s serial-killer calm about the whole thing. I watch Luke, the spitting image of any Manhattan real estate investor, answer the same questions and give the same tepid responses again and again over the same dinner at the same restaurant like a Twilight Zone episode in which someone is forced to re-experience a boring first date until a curse is lifted. I’m waiting for him to crack and yell, “Enough!” or “I’m sick of Thai food”. Anything. But he’s cool as a cucumber as he compliments a woman’s chopsticks skills and she responds, “One time I had a person comment on how good they were.” Oh, one time besides this time someone told you that you were good at this? My god, make this cascade of mediocrity stop.
It’s relatively low stakes and boring, but at least there’s a meal. It’s exactly like what dating around in real life is like.
Unlike The Bachelor, or Temptation Island, or Love Island, or the majority of other results-focused reality dating shows that revel in the fantasy aspect of finding a soulmate and living out a fairy tale, Dating Around is painstakingly focused on the process and reality of modern dating in a world of endless choices. There are no fancy introductory stunts, no cash prizes, no big proposals with a giant diamond on a sandy beach. There’s just people having dinner and drinks in New York City and asking for each other’s numbers — or letting each other down gently — in the backseat of a Lyft. We don't even find out if the final couple is still together; all we see is them choosing to embark on a second date (the real kind, not the fantastical, meaning-laden Bachelor kind). It’s relatively low stakes and boring, but at least there’s a meal. It’s exactly like what dating around in real life is like.
The daters are all incredibly different, too, bringing to life first dates that are inane, boring, fun, and even hostile. There’s Lex, the confident and cool gay man his friend calls the Asian James Dean. Luke, the aforementioned real estate guy who is so boring that he actually seems amused by a woman who tells him to taste his food with "more flavorfulness, more mouthness." Leonard, a 70-year-old widower learning to put himself out there once again. Gurki, the gorgeous divorcée who is miles better than all of her dates. Mila, the queer, soft-spoken sweetheart who doesn’t really date. And Sarah, a woman whose manic pixie energy is endearing to one date and a nightmare to another.
Without confessional interviews or the producer-coerced drama of shows like The Bachelor, the drama of Dating Around is in the smaller moments. Both Sarah and Gurki both have one date out of five go sideways and end early, which felt very relatable. It's excruciating to watch Sarah give a double whammy excuse of a "headache and an early morning" to cut a date short with a man who can't stop making sexual innuendos before dinner; karma hits her back when another date who can’t stand her puns finally wishes her good luck and leaves her at a bar alone. Gurki, meanwhile, is left alone in shock after one date becomes hostile and blames her for her divorce. Both are cringey yet electrifyingly real moments of television; they're so voyeuristic you can't avert your eyes.
And really, who hasn’t been there? Who hasn’t felt the pang of discomfort when you immediately know this isn’t going to work... and then the utter relief in being able to walk away before your bedtime? The daters who go on their separate ways do it without much pain because they know there will be another date with another person. There will always be another date. This is what dating is like in a land of countless options.
While those moments are quite dramatic (and, of course, happen only to the straight women), the other dates are all totally fine. They’re normal to the point of being forgettable. There is an existential nagging that grows in the viewer while watching daters fumble around in ways that are too familiar. (What should I order? Do I kiss her or give her a hug? Do I want to see her again or am I just saying that because it's polite?) After six episodes, we’re left to wonder: what's the point of dating at all?
Five out of six episodes of Dating Around follow young, hot New Yorkers who by now might be growing their Instagram followings and basking in their newfound celebrity, and that's just fine. But the one delightful outlier in the series is Leonard, the widower and former P.I. who brings an openhearted joy to every date he goes on. He takes careful consideration of his dates, who, like him, have already lived lives full of plenty of joy and pain. Like him, they're out there on a first date with a genuine hope of making a connection, because they know that life is long and lonely, and is made beautiful by forming connections with other people.
So why do we keep watching, and why do we keep dating? Because maybe there’s hope. Hope for a second date — and at least for us watching Netflix, a second season.