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.)