Courtesy of Netflix

Relationships

Could Netflix's 'Dating Around' Be the Inclusive Future of Dating Shows?

Dating can be both a transformative experience and a source of shame… just ask any single person. Our culture has created new ways to tackle the heavy burden of what it takes to find The One. Dating apps have become ubiquitous, where you’re just as likely to hear a story of a couple meeting by swiping right as you are to hear about them meeting at a bar or party.

Netflix’s Dating Around transforms our ideas about dating because it recenters connection and authenticity in the search for love, rather than emphasizing instant gratification simply for entertainment and sensationalism. Amongst the initial six episodes, the show brought to light the first date blunders that viewers are all too familiar with: the awkward silences, the realization of a mismatch, even the emotional violence that can occur. But as much as it highlights the challenges of making a romantic connection, Dating Around also reminds us why the search for love continues to be a timeless tale, making it stand out from similar shows.

Dating shows have been a mainstay in entertainment for years since they first appeared in 1965. Beginning with Chuck Barris’ The Dating Game, dating shows had a popular rise to fame, merging the enjoyable suspense of and the human psychology behind matchmaking. The Newlywed Show and The New Dating Game continued these traditions, though the dating show further pivoted repeatedly over the years.

From the 1990s, dating shows began to incorporate more complexities: moving away from the format of what basically amounted to recorded blind dates and toward emphasizing pure entertainment over realism. We see this with shows like Temptation Island, The Fifth Wheel, and even Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? where they diverged from the traditional blind date model to incorporate “twists.” The shows often included deception on the participants’ behalf — misleading contestants on who their dates were for example — to see whether love can conquer all in the span of a single episode.

We see people that are parents, divorcees and widows: people whose labels would make dating even more challenging or be shown for laughs in other shows.

Now in more recent years, we’ve seen a cultural shift toward dating shows like The Bachelor and the related The Bachelorette that boast large followings. Fans love them for many reasons, despite elements of the show that have caused controversy in relation to feminism. But the idea of finding love amongst a wide variety of choices still remains a compelling narrative. And it’s why more than eight million people continue to tune in each season to watch The Bachelor franchise, making its unique format a genre expectation.

The contestants of these shows are interesting enough, as desirability plays an important role in who gets a chance to find love in front of the camera. They vary in type, but focus overwhelmingly on heterosexual men and women, mostly in their 20s-early 40s. Racial diversity has improved somewhat, though white contestants tend to still be in the majority. Queer contestants remain outliers, though the inclusion within the genre has been reflective of social attitudes on queerness.

As dating shows have evolved, so has the culture of dating in America. The expectation of meeting someone organically, going on a few dates before becoming “monogamous” and moving toward the goal of marriage and happily ever after are not the exclusive dating journeys that people can go down anymore. This has been transformed, in large part, by technology: sextech, including dating apps, have changed how we date and what we feel allowed to search for. Monogamy isn’t the only goal anymore; polyamory and all forms of non-monogamy are now all as socially acceptable to claim as a dating goal as it is to find someone to “settle down with.” People feel that they can have more of a customized experience to their dating but that liberation of choice has transformed into an overwhelm of choices. It’s harder to know exactly what course to go down to find a genuine connection, even if it’s by nontraditional means like looking for people to date as a non-monogamous person.

But all this history lays the groundwork for Dating Around to emerge on the scene. The premise of Dating Around is both simple and familiar: A single person goes on a series of blind dates. At the end of the 30-minute episode, the featured person will have the option of choosing someone to go on a second date with.

At first, viewers may be expecting a dating show that reflects its predecessors: a scripted show that is for light entertainment. But what we got was something more. In Dating Around, viewers are allowed in to witness the moments of awkwardness, sparks of connection, and genuine surprise with who is “chosen” to go on a second date at the end of the episode. In the second episode, we follow contestant Gurki as she goes on five first dates. But the darker challenges of dating aren’t always easy to witness. One of Gurki’s dates has a stark ending where he berates her with misogynistic and racist statements rooted in her Indian heritage and personal history as a divorced woman. And Gurki isn’t alone: In episode five, contestant Sarah has to navigate something many women grapple with: dealing with a date that isn’t just a mismatch, but engages in sexual harassment during the date by making multiple dick jokes.

Traditional dating show contestants vary in type, but focus overwhelmingly on heterosexual men and women, mostly in their 20s-early 40s, with queer contestants being an outlier.

But there is another option that is seen just as valid as choosing one person to have a second date with: choosing yourself. Gurki's episode ends with her shopping in Manhattan’s SoHo, wearing a lilac dress and spending time with herself. Men on the street stop to smile at her, and she returns these glances, but Gurki remains single. Unlike the women of previous dating shows, who would be seen as “rejected,” “sad,” or “unwanted” by remaining alone when there is the option of being in a partnership, Gurki’s choice not to go on a second date with any of the men is a striking statement of personal choice and autonomy. Gurki deciding to remain single rather than choose someone for the sake of the show is an important evolution for dating shows on television and challenges the cultural value we assign to single people.

Dating Around also normalizes the idea of finding love as a universal experience, by including one of the most diverse casts of contestants on a dating show. We see people that are parents, divorcees and widows: people whose labels would make dating even more challenging or be shown for laughs in other shows. Contestants also identify across the spectrum of race, gender, and sexuality, and these participants are given as much agency in their search for love as participants that fit traditional molds of dating shows.

What’s most interesting about Dating Around is that the show presents opportunities for contestants to confront their biases by pairing them with dates that they would maybe not choose on their own. The viewers get to witness the blossoming of a connection at the same time as the contestants, and we are reminded of why dating and romance remains one of the most fundamental experiences humans can have.

Dating Around feels like the natural progression of the dating show genre. There are elements that we are familiar with — the “game” aspect of “choosing” someone by the end of the episode, the suspense around who will be that choice— but there are also opportunities that feel fresh, like the pairing of people that match expectations and those that do not. It doesn’t attempt to hide the exhausting and ugly parts of dating, nor does it stretch the exhilarating parts of it. But the rawness of potential, this is what viewers truly crave when they watch these shows and Dating Around delivers on this and more.

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