Netflix's 'Dating Around' Is a Kinda Dull, Yet Entrancing Matchmaking Show

dating around
Sarah is bored, but also, like, not??? | Netflix
Sarah is bored, but also, like, not??? | Netflix

Almost immediately after I started watching Netflix's new reality show Dating Around, I felt a wave of stress and secondhand embarrassment burrow into my being. I had started on the fifth episode, focusing on the love life of Sarah, a straight woman with a flash of red lipstick, tattoos, and a string of bad relationships in her past, who fumbles through a series of dates with abundant enthusiasm and a few too many quips. It's not that Dating Around is "too real" to handle. Instead, it's that it's caught in a desperately uncomfortable limbo, both trying to present a vision of incipient romance that runs counter to the roses and hot tubs of Bachelor Nation, and still too glossy to feel like an accurate depiction of dating in New York. That's its hard sell, after all: These are just regular people, not wannabe fameballs, and there's no promise of everlasting love. 

I was entranced by Dating Around, bingeing all six half-hour episodes in essentially a night, and then left wondering what the point of it all was. It doesn't sell the myth that any of these people were "finding love," nor does put together couples with actually good chemistry and might have a shot beyond their single meeting on camera. Even when the conversations got "real," they felt stilted, like the daters had come in with lines ready to go. At least the show isn't explicitly exploitative -- no one's out for humiliation; it won't inspire an UnREAL spinoff -- but it isn't particularly groundbreaking either. It's just bizarrely captivating in its monotony.

Billing itself as an "honest and compelling look at the real world of dating," Dating Around operates thusly: Each episode focuses on one person, who goes on five first dates that are creatively edited together. Conversations bleed into one another as the person across the table turns into someone else fielding the same questions. All the excursions start with drinks, move on to dinner, and end with the possibility of a second location. (Not every "contestant" -- if that term even applies here -- gets to that level.) At the end of the episode, there's a brief reveal in which the audience discovers which of the five potential partners was chosen for the second date. In an effort to present the entire spectrum of dating in New York, the subjects are diverse in sexuality, race, and even age. Showrunner Alycia Rossiter told Vulture that producers were looking for "people who weren't looking for attention. Or people who don't see faces like their own on TV." Gurki, the star of the most viral clip from the show so far, is divorced; Leonard, is a widower of slightly advanced age. That's perhaps why it's so frustrating that all the dates are basically the same, hopping from trendy-looking restaurant to trendy-looking bar. (Or, in one case, a trendy ice cream truck.)

Mila (left) on a date. | Netflix

Anyone who has dated in New York -- or anywhere, really -- can tell you it's full of small negotiations that Netflix completely alleviates here. There's no debate over who is going to pay for the date. The bill is left on the table, unresolved, for the studio to handle. Everyone, of course, will get home safely via car service. Sex on the first date seems to be off the table. The most anyone does is make out a little bit. The idea that someone would actually go home with another person is almost too prurient for this exercise.

Producers seem to encourage the participants to address "big" topics, the kind most people probably wouldn't tackle on a first date, like marriage and kids. The conversations turn very serious very quickly, depriving the audience of flirty chit chat that would actually result in sparks flying. People announce their professions -- there is strong representation from the real estate industry -- but we get little sense of their daily lives or their passions, only little blips of what we assume are personalities. Sarah's a Rent-head. Mila has a tattoo of a Hindu monk mantra. Leonard did a bunch of drugs back in the day. (Perhaps because being older has given him a lower tolerance for bullshit, Leonard makes for the most endearing episode. He appears to find the process as agonizing as viewers do.) 

dating around
My girl Tiffany!! | Netflix

Netflix's recent reality content like Queer Eye and Tidying Up has been largely "nice," focused on self-improvement through kindness. Though it had a life before Netflix, Japanese import Terrace House, which has gained a following on the platform, is structured not around conflict but existence, where the residents' everyday interactions feel important enough to become water-cooler conversations. Thus, it makes sense that Dating Around isn't stuffed with jerks, mostly. With two notable exceptions, the daters are just people seeking a connection. The outliers -- no surprise here -- are two men who are rude to women. While Sarah quickly brushes off an asshole who makes a gross dick joke, it's Gurki's tense interaction with a bad man that Netflix has used as promo material for the show.

Gurki, a 36-year-old jewelry buyer for Barneys, is refreshingly open about her divorce, which does not sit well with Justin, a man who, by the way, announces that he made his ex give up her cat for him and then broke up with her. A disagreement about whether or not you give away a part of yourself when you're in a serious relationship -- Justin says yes, while Gurki says no -- segues into an unfair debate about Gurki's history. Justin accuses Gurki of lying to the man she married because she had doubts. She tells Justin that he doesn't understand the cultural pressures she was under. He says her he'd never be able to trust her and leaves. It's a ludicrous interaction, but it's also an anomaly. In the tag, we find that Gurki doesn't choose any guy she met for a second date. The choice to have her ogled by men as she goes shopping alone is a questionable one, but at least she seems to be enjoying a dating-free life. You wish she wasn't the only one who made the decision.

Too many of the final choices seem like a shrug, made out of obligation. And it's telling that, according to Instagram sleuthing from BuzzFeed, basically no one (except for Leonard and his date Dianna) continued to see each other. In the first episode, Luke goes out with Tiffany, who is brash and hilarious, ordering exactly what she wants and defending her decision to smack her lips when she eats. They kiss some outside the restaurant, and in the car ride home admits she likes to be "not socially acceptable." Luke doesn't choose her, which is fine; to each their own. But it underscores my issue with Dating Around: If it's not going to say anything about the state of modern love, it could use just a bit more of Tiffany's wild-card energy instead of playing it so damn safe.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.