Harvey is 82. He is a former member of the Welsh Guard who wears a dandelion on his lapel, and he is “not ready to give up on love or life.” This is why he is here, on my screen, a participant in the British Channel 4 reality show “First Dates.”
The premise is this: there is a restaurant in London where every customer is on a blind date. They are all people who have applied to be on the show. Some will be featured while others will stay mostly in the background, but they are all single and they are all sitting down to a meal with somebody chosen for them by a TV production team. Over the course of each episode we follow four or five of these couples, from the moment they are introduced to the moment they answer the producers’ very loaded question: “Are you going to see each other again?”
Most dating shows focus on the act of bringing two people together. “Blind Date,” “Take Me Out,” “Dating in the Dark,” “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”—all of these function as game shows, where the contestants compete to win a date or face challenges to prove their worth as a potential partner. The emphasis is not on the couple’s time together, but instead on how they get paired up in the first place. These shows are built on a format that has nothing to do with the specifics of romance; the competitions could just as well result in job offers or pets. The point is simply to take something commonplace and inject it with artifice. Whether that something is the search for love or a quest for a new babysitter is essentially irrelevant, because the structure of the show—the competitors, the obstacles, the chance to win or lose—does not change. Rather than providing an insight into human emotions and behaviour, these competitions paint a coat of romance on a familiar game show machine, and as such they tend to be largely forgettable. The contestants are essentially actors, following a script with feigned enthusiasm but never able to deviate from their proscribed storyline.
Any game has rules to be respected, and on TV these are tethered to audience entertainment. Every episode should have some drama, some tension, an unexpected match or a one-sided attraction. Contestants cannot be left to their own devices because emotions are not reliable enough to hold game shows together; producers must be puppeteers, creating lust and attachment in specific doses and at specific times. It is strange that we call this reality TV, because its very nature precludes reality—and there is certainly something unpleasantly presumptuous in producers’ confidence that their scripted stories are more compelling than spontaneous human behavior.
“First Dates” sets itself apart because it does not follow a script, and it is not a game. The people featured are not competing with each other, and nobody is voted off or chosen from a lineup. We do not see the matchmaking process at all—participants are matched according to age, sexual orientation, and, judging from the pairings, vague similarities in background and interests, but we are not privy to any of those decisions. All we see is the date. The difference between this and the game shows mentioned earlier is profound. “First Dates” is about interaction, and vulnerability, and the ways people try to impress and learn about and seem attractive to each other. There are no winners and losers, just those who find a connection and those who don’t. It is radically real in a genre that for years has eschewed reality in favour of convenience and reliable plot lines.
Harvey, the 82 year old who is seeking a new partner after two previous marriages, could never appear on “The Bachelor” or “Dating in the Dark.” Those, like almost all dating game shows, are built for telegenic people in their twenties and thirties whose prior experiences in romance can usually be boiled down to, “I’ve been having fun and now I want to settle down.” We learn much more than that about Harvey. He tells his date, a 78 year old woman named Dinah, that one of his children died in their fifties from a brain tumor, and that he still feels “destroyed” by it. He is amazed that Dinah has never been married, but she explains that she just never met anybody she wanted to commit to being with for her whole life. She mentions a time when she was in love with a married man, and rather than being a melodramatic moment pulped for every drop of emotion it is just sad, and moving, and incredibly human. In the same episode we meet Sian and Nick, both in their twenties but without the simultaneously bland and caricaturish personalities usually demanded of dating game show contestants. Nick reveals in the middle of their date that he loves to write, and has had some poems published. Sian is surprised but immediately encouraging, telling him to get out there and follow his passion. It could be a cliché but it isn’t, because these are two real human people, opening up to each other and having their expectations defied in lovely and positive ways. Every episode ends with an update on the couples who agreed to see each other again. In this one, we learn that Sian and Nick have been together for six weeks, and that she has met his mother. Updates like that—infrequent though they are—just emphasize what a rare opportunity the show presents to its audience. Here, it says, take a look at the very first meeting of two people who might just go on to fall in love.
In fact, one of the most powerful areas in which First Dates distinguishes itself is in the attitude it provokes in its audience. When we watch dating game shows we are often encouraged to be critical, to judge contestants’ appearances and personalities as though we were also engaged in their competition. We are guided into choosing favourites, laughing at the wacky one and shaking our heads at the villain of the week. In First Dates none of that applies. The participants do not gain from each other’s failure or suffer from each other’s success. They just each go on a date, and then decide whether or not to meet up with their partner again. This means that all we can do as an audience is hope, either that they will like each other or that they won’t—and unless someone is really, truly terrible, we’ll probably choose the former. So although we might judge, and criticize, and maybe even laugh at these people who are looking for love, more often than not we want them to find it. And isn’t that rare, for a reality show to bring out compassion and generosity in its viewers? We do not gain anything from two people on First Dates having a horrible time, but seeing them instead make a connection, and enjoy each other’s company, and maybe even find a spark of something more exciting—that lets us know that these experiences are possible. That despite the difficulties of being a human and looking for someone to love and be loved by, despite the misery of unrequited affection or the monotony of bad Tinder encounters, despite the enormity of trying to find that one special person in a population of seven billion, it is possible to have a really lovely first date with somebody you’ve never met before.
“First Dates” is revolutionary because it puts faith in people being inherently interesting. This is a show that knows that an ordinary human being on a blind date is more entertaining and more moving to watch than ten twenty-five year olds winking at each other on cue. True reality TV is powerful, but when we are bombarded with scripted live-action cartoons like “The Bachelor” it is easy to forget the genre’s potential. We ridicule the concept of reality shows when instead we should just be demanding more from them. People are fascinating! In our moments of weakness, when nerves get the better of us; in our moments of strength, when we confess that we might just want to see someone again; we go through endless small failures and victories and seeing that onscreen is both gripping and poignant. First Dates is not a sideshow inviting us to laugh at its characters. It is a mirror, reflecting our vulnerability and, even more than that, our capacity for courage in the search for real connection.