Reality TV is the often the most compelling when it is just that: reality. In the world of dating shows, though, realness is often in short order. Popular shows like The Bachelor, Love Island, and the outrageous Too Hot To Handle seem to favor grandeur over substance, shock value over connection. Enter Dating Around, a Netflix original that eschews these drama-forward norms and presents a hyper-realistic, “normal people going on normal dates” approach to the genre. It’s only possible to break the rules if you know the rules, and executive producer Alycia Rossiter certainly does, having worked extensively on The Bachelor and its various franchises. Dating Around’s subversive style has a simple format: one single person goes on five blind dates with five different matches, all at the same restaurant. There are multiple phases to each date, (“want to join me for another drink?” they might ask) and they can opt out of at any stage. We see all five dates inter-spliced over the course of thirty minutes, and the beginning of one second date, which the main dater has chosen out of the five.
There is no host, there are no talking head interviews, and no elimination ceremonies. In fact the only non-date content we see is at the top of each episode, where voice-over interviews from loved ones play over footage of the singleton getting dressed. What we’re left with, then, is pure voyeurism, as we watch single people try to form connections on their own. We can only glean how they feel about each other from the way they interact- their facial reactions and body language. The editing is conscious and sometimes abrupt, switching between dates in the midst of conversation. Sometimes the main dater broaches the same topics with their different matches, giving editors a chance to smash them together, allowing us to see different people’s different reactions to the same story. Ultimately, it’s like a really good session of people-watching.
Dating Around is also inclusive where its counterparts are not, with the cast ranging in sexuality, body type, age, and race. The contestants all look like regular people, and each has their own sense of style and self-presentation- not everyone looks like variations on the same white guy. The daters also vary in personality. Kindergarten teacher Brandon is suave and effortless while college professor Ben is eager and stutter-y, which gives the show yet another breath of realism- a break from the usual stream of polished, made-for-TV personalities.
While season one took place in New York City, which was ripe for interesting job titles and eclectic characters, the recent second season is set in New Orleans, which Dating Around makes look like the most romantic city in the world. The cinematography is stunning, rendering a simple walk down the street into a romantic swell straight out of a movie. It also sizzles with awkwardness at moments, as daters share silences and side-eyes. Just as in real life, every date isn’t a winner, Some of matches are pleasingly odd, and there’s often humor from the resulting tension. A pescatarian animal lover is paired with an avid hunter, a college professor is matched a student from his own university, (the former ends with as deft friend zoning, the latter ends with a resolution to inform HR) but the clashes don’t feel forced. Some second date choices are also surprising, since it’s not always the person they kissed during the date or the person who received the most airtime. It’s about first spark, attraction, and potential energy, and at the end of every episode the audience’s imagination is activated, as we’re left wondering where the relationships might go.
But there isn’t any pressure that the participants find “the one” over the course of the episode. That’s often the inherent hope of dating, of course, but nobody on Dating Around pretends that each connection will result in forever. Most other shows in the genre revolve around an engagement, despite the fact that less people are actually getting married these days. Most of the couples on Dating Around don’t even broach the subject of marriage, since not on everybody’s priority list (not to mention, a loaded first date topic).
The dates themselves could be ripped out of any New Orleans bar and table- they discuss the state of their local dating scene, the effects of Hurricane Katrina, their favorite restaurants. These conversations help ground the show in space and time, offering a respite from the anonymous tropical vacation spots that other shows seem to favor. The daters also reference real-world things that conventional dating shows often push out of frame: having to wake up early the next morning, past experiences using dating apps, one dater even confesses he’ll soon be moving to Texas- so he won’t even be around to form a real connection. Some of the most poignant moments in the show happen, though, when the dater sits in their Lyft (the show’s rideshare of choice) after dropping off their date. Their faces beam or cringe once they’re finally alone, and watching it feels like a rare insight into a usually private nugget of emotion. Ben even sheds a few tears after Jaden tells him that it’s just platonic.
In a word, Dating Around is relatable, and gives viewers a vision of romance that might rhyme with their own experiences. The show’s commitment to realism makes the moments of sweetness hit harder, like when Deva and Maria hold a loving gaze during the ride home, or when Justin sweetly tells Assata that she exceeds all his expectations. Watching reality TV during the pandemic often has a contains a layer of fantasy- looking back at a time when you could to restaurants, share drinks, kiss strangers. Dating Around, then, is the platonic ideal of that fantasy: regular people, regular encounters, regular conversations resulting in the moments of acute feeling and genuine magic of which life have always been full.