When Netflix’s curious Dating Around arrived last year, it required a brief adjustment to get used to its approach. Though it masqueraded as low-key and unfussy, a show that simply eavesdropped on blind dates, its approach was more high-concept than it first appeared. One person went on five dates, then chose their favourite for a second date. So far, so familiar. But the editing made it all look as if it took place on the same night, in a sort of hopeful-romantic Groundhog Day. And so each date took place at the same place, in the same clothes, often with the same questions and jokes. These were edited to look as if they were all happening at once, and it was borderline arthouse. If it was supposed to be a comment on the repetitive grind of modern dating, then it was a surprisingly effective one.
Still, despite its conspicuous oddness, it was more subtle and less flashy than other shows of its ilk. It may be high-concept, but that concept isn’t a grand one – there’s no abstinence from sex for money, no agreement to marry without first seeing the person you intend to marry. It’s simply a date, over drinks and dinner, with the prospect of another date at the end of it. It let conversations linger, it waited to see if a kiss might be initiated in the back of a cab, fully embracing the awkwardness of that particular dance, and it let incompatible couples come to the realisation that they were not meant to be at an excruciatingly authentic pace. At just 30 minutes or so, it was entirely compelling. It felt right at home in the age of apps. The dates were not surface (at least not by design, though sometimes they ended up that way), but they were brisk, efficient. If not quite the equivalent of a swipe left or right on TV, then it is right at home in a culture in which that is normalised.
For this second season, the show has moved from New York to New Orleans, which seems a smart move in terms of adding variety, given that dating in the US appears to be hyper-localised. (As a non-American who has never experienced American dating, the customs are an endless source of fascination and wonder.) As before, it is broken into three sections: drinks, dinner and after hours, should it get that far, which either takes in a second bar or a cab ride. The benefit of a return visit is that there is no need for adjustment this time. We know exactly what’s about to happen, and why a date is cutting between five different partners, despite the same setting and clothing, and it’s easy to jump right in.
The season opens with Justin, a 31-year-old who works in finance. Every episode begins with friends offering recommendations and analysis. Deva is raw from heartbreak, Ben is a smiling, nervous “diamond in the rough”. In Justin’s case, he dates party girls, which means he hasn’t yet found the one with whom he can settle down. The five women he meets run the gamut of dates, good, bad, and just not right. Lilly, 26, is a true character, who arrives with a declaration that “my armpits are sweaty right now”, and continues to flummox Justin with how upfront she is, particularly when it comes to talking about her body. “You have a personality that I’ve never encountered,” he tells her, stunned, but without unkindness.
Dating Around is sometimes exposing, but always kind. Brandon, a kindergarten director, goes on one date in which the lack of common ground is so plain from the beginning that it becomes a kind of competition, in which cigarettes and blue cheese are the battle lines. Even then, the kiss off is a “I feel like we’re on different pages”, and not a for-the-camera kick to the kerb. Part of the pleasure in watching this is trying to second-guess what will happen next, to spot the chemistry and the pitfalls before the daters spot it themselves. I’ve become an expert at analysing the conversations about exes. If it’s casual and frank, it is usually a promising sign. If it’s awkward or stilted, or still pulsating with pain, then they might not even get to the cab stage. How different people react to the same story is telling, too: one woman, Demi, who likes bad boys, recalls taking a butterknife to a date. Some of her partners found it funny, some perplexing, and I found myself rooting for the one who understood why she might have to consider her safety with a stranger who knew where she lived.
Despite the inherent sameness of the set-up, Dating Around feels fresh with each episode. Its casting is diverse, and this opens the door to frank conversations that are rarely heard in these kinds of shows. Justin talks about women who treat him as an Asian stereotype. Deva is bisexual and her dates include men and women, with no comment or fanfare. It is depressing that this should be so noteworthy, but at least it is refreshing, and makes it feel contemporary. My main issue is that there is little in the way of “what happened next”, other than a quick compilation of clips of the very beginning of the second date. Here, the rules of romance dictate that to progress, one must move to picnics and cycling trips and museum visits. I want to know if it worked out beyond the daylight meet-up. It feels cruel to leave us hanging.