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The Deceptive Simplicity of ‘Dating Around’

Netflix’s new dating show is relatively natural for the genre—but it makes for some fascinating case studies

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The premise of Dating Around takes all of two slides to explain—three, if you count “A Netflix Original Series.” “Five first dates” reads the first. “One second date,” the second continues. That’s it. Starting with its extremely literal name, the streaming service’s foray into dating shows is a program firmly in line with the keep it simple, stupid principle. Dating is messy and complicated enough on its own. Why weigh it down with gimmicks or twists?

Where The Bachelor escalates a fledgling romance into a full-blown proposal of marriage and Back With the Ex, an Australian series Netflix distributes internationally, sets up an outlandish scenario divorced from real life, Dating Around is relatively streamlined. Each of its six episodes stars a different New Yorker looking for love; they choose between five suitors briefly introduced in an opening montage, the episode’s options laid out as efficiently as its premise. The effect is relatively realistic, though that realism comes with a gigantic caveat: Every flirty glance and awkward silence we see occurs between people who have agreed to let a deeply personal part of their lives play out in front of cameras, a rock-solid fourth wall Dating Around refuses to break. Once you factor in that large grain of salt, though, Dating Around is remarkably natural for a genre notorious for its manipulation and whose audience has grown ever more savvy to its trademarks.

Like other Netflix reality shows, including Tidying Up With Marie Kondo and Queer Eye, Dating Around is pointedly diverse—not just in race and sexual orientation, but also age, an especially intriguing development for a dating show. (The season’s best installment is its fourth, which centers on a widower who speaks frankly about his loss.) With a concept as bare-bones as “following first dates,” Dating Around’s innovation comes from an unlikely source: its editing. Rather than show every outing back to back, the show splices all five of them together, organizing its half hours by portions of the evening—“Drinks,” “Dinner,” and “After Hours,” including a cab ride—rather than pairing. This setup results in one of Dating Around’s few instances of production that’s obvious to the point of distraction: For the sake of visual continuity, the poor protagonist attends the exact same restaurant and wears the exact same outfit across all five dates. The restaurant’s name is prominently displayed, presumably to offset hefty location fees. One hopes production siphoned some of those savings into a dry-cleaning fund for the cast.

But the interwoven dates also allow for some of Dating Around’s shrewdest commentary on modern dating. Anyone who’s ever braved the frozen tundra of Tinder knows the touchstones of a conversation between two people who’ve never interacted in person before: the awkward hug hello; the cursory discussion of job, place of origin, and especially in big, transplant-heavy cities, how long you’ve lived in your current home; all the while, silently sussing out chemistry and/or your desire to see each other again. Dating Around cleverly turns these metaphorical beats into literal ones, crafting a rhythm out of the steady drumbeat of “What do you do?” and “What neighborhood are you in?” It’s also a depressing confirmation of how willing dudes are to tell someone they’ve only known for a few hours that they’re one of the most special, beautiful, interesting people they’ve ever met.

The stakes here are refreshingly low. Daters aren’t being asked to make a vow before God, or really any commitment beyond expressing interest in going out again. Ironically, such low-key parameters mostly go to show that stakes aren’t necessary to create drama. The compressed timeline of their courtship does prompt suitors to touch on topics typically considered deeper than first-date fare: past relationships, interest in marriage and children, even sexual preferences. But the occasional flare-ups come from utterly normal, and therefore relatable, interactions. A man tells a woman to relax. A playfully intense discussion about arranged marriage turns into an ugly accusation. Even the objectively moral, but still excruciatingly awkward, act of telling someone to their face you’re not interested prompts a miniature spiral. “I hate this shit,” grumbles Leonard, the widower, as his Netflix-commissioned car ferries him home. (At least home is a 1,900-square-foot apartment in a trendy downtown neighborhood he also owns. Dating Around gives the people what they want, up to and including the nitty-gritty of New York real estate.)

Dating Around excels at casting. Some candidates do appear to be spoilers. A self-identified Jersey girl with a loud chewing habit is a classic bit of color, not there to “win” but padding out the field in entertaining fashion; a heavily tattooed SWAT officer set up with a glamorous Barney’s buyer is an odd couple destined not to work out. For the most part, however, dates are well-matched enough to read as plausible. Few have the palpable thirst for attention that haunts so many reality TV contestants, a category now old and numerous enough to be its own recognizable strain of human. The leads are generally attractive and therefore easy to watch, while also recognizable as real people. It’s the same sweet spot that was the secret to Sex and the City’s success, a show Dating Around takes after in its handsome cinematography as well as its blueprint.

At episode’s end, the star’s choice of second date is treated like a dramatic reveal. We first see the hero or heroine anxiously searching for their companion on a crowded street. To triumphant music, the date then emerges, and the two walk off together into the high-noon daylight. There are no status updates as to whether the couple in question is still dating; given that the ethos of Dating Around is one of casual experimentation, a long-term bond isn’t really the point. Instead, the unveiling turns subsequent episodes into a fun guessing game on the part of the viewer. More often than not, I found myself getting it wrong. The guy from the first episode pleasantly surprised me by going for the girl next door over the Colombian bombshell. The widower turned down the woman I thought he had the best chemistry with, and asked out another I’d initially read as cold to him. A couple dates overwhelmed in the initial edit by flashier rivals emerged as surprise victors. Dating Around turns dating into a spectator sport, and a highly entertaining one at that. But at the end of the day, it’s yet another reminder that no one can fully understand a relationship, even a fledgling one, except for the people in it.