Remember dating before the age of swiping right and double-tapping? A simpler time when it didn’t require filling out pages upon pages of online bios or choosing which picture is the right one to send to even get a text back? NBC’s new reality show First Dates, executive produced by Ellen DeGeneres and narrated by Drew Barrymore, aims to bring the awkwardness of a blind date right into your living room.
First Dates chronicles real-life blind dates at one of Chicago’s most in-demand and romantic restaurants. Think of it as a cross between speed dating and The Bachelor. The people are picked due to their similar interests — a surprising concept in today’s “photo first, ask questions later” age. The participants don’t adhere to one identifying factor — the individuals are young, old, black, white, virginal and, well, not virginal, and future episodes tease gay and lesbian dates as well. What Dates lets viewers do is something many may not want to be a part of: watching and reliving a first date. Giving the audience the fly-on-the-wall vantage point means we’re vicariously reliving every bead of sweat, cringing joke, and tension-filled bite of food.
But for every horrible, awkward first date, complete with an awkward handshake or nervous laugh, there is a scene between two strangers, lovelorn and hopeful for the connection they aim to make across the dinner table, that’ll make you crack a smile. What Dates does wonderfully is make you realize that each person has a story, complete with individual idiosyncrasies and nuances, and though they may be different, they each are there for the same thing: to find love.
The biggest issue with Dates is that its premise could fall flat shortly out of the gate. The pilot features five different dates, most which end with the participants giddy and heart eyed, yearning for a second date — and while it’s lovely to see two people connect on a good first date, how many times can you roll the dice and get the exact same result?
To offset its rose-colored viewpoint, Dates does throw in the occasional misfire. One date in the pilot, while a seemingly fine date on most accounts, is meant to be the outlier: A pretty blonde woman is set up with a man with a beard as ragged as an adolescent Merlin’s, and you can tell from the first sip of tequila that while they’re not bad people, they are not meant for each other. For some awkward humor, the guy is so taken aback by a date costing upward of $200 that he withdraws to the bathroom, calling a friend while having a moral dilemma about footing the bill. In an act of terrible (non-)chivalry, he not only shows the bill to his date but also implies that he would like to split it. It is in this moment that you see the girl would rather be in a bathtub full of spiders than spend one more second on this date.
It’s these moments, interspersed with bouquets of roses, bottles of champagne, and one older couple who will make you cry the second you hear their backstories, that help First Dates pull on just the right heartstrings to keep you coming back for more. It might not be a groundbreaking reality show, but it is reality, holding up a mirror to the first date experience. Sometimes we want a connection with a human being, not a telephone screen. It’s awkward, sometimes cringe-worthy, romantic, and slightly moving: everything you would want in a first date and enough to warrant a second one. Plus, who wouldn’t want their love life narrated by Drew Barrymore?
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