Almost as soon as reality television started to take up significant real estate on the TV schedule in the late ’90s, critics lambasted the genre as bottom-scraping television for the dumb or otherwise intellectually incurious. TV producers seemed not to take this so much as a criticism as they did a helpful programming note, and soon began market-testing just how much inanity the public was willing to tolerate (who doesn’t remember Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, or the “celebreality” craze of the mid-’00s?). The nation was transfixed by Jessica Simpson’s confusion as to which food category canned tuna belonged to, and everything from dating programs to cooking shows began reveling in gimmicky and voyeuristic formats. Fast-forward to present times and The Apprentice host Donald Trump is in the White House, and Snooki and one of Lindsay Lohan’s ex-fiancés host a show on MTV in which people get tattoos without seeing what they are first.
Turns out, we could handle a lot of stupidity. Countdown-clock segments of cooking shows are edited with the intensity and drama of the staircase scene in Battleship Potemkin. Even though dating shows seem to be formulated to guarantee maximum alcohol consumption and minimum bathing-suit coverage of contestants, they’re still expected to climax in no less important a decision than, say, a marriage engagement. No woman can enjoy a cocktail with a friend on a reality television anymore without fear of some turn where that cocktail winds up splashed across her Michael Kors blouse. No matter the format, even seemingly random parts of a contestant’s backstory are strung out into manipulative tear-jerkers (“… and the fact that I almost got rabies in fifth grade from a neighbor’s dog is why winning $10,000 to open my own stationery boutique would mean so much to me”). Never mind all the manipulative editing and extra baggage thrown on only to fill out the allotted time slot and episode order, as if we all don’t know what’s happening. Take The Masked Singer, the latest insult to viewers’ intelligence. Its bizarre concept was enough to hook us, even if most of the Internet had a pretty good guess as to which “celebrities” were behind the masks after the first two episodes, they still kept watching. So, why, then, are producers so extra about treating everyone at home like an idiot? Increasingly, it seems the only way to explain the celebrity judges’ increasingly bad guesses is that they’ve been told the identities beforehand and instructed to try and throw us, the viewers, off the scent (it’s not really working, we all know that damn peacock is Donny Osmond!). Perhaps they think, “Well, it’s an idiot’s genre, let’s just make it for idiots.” Excuse us, but there is a difference between wanting to occasionally watch television to numb your thoughts and not being capable of having any thoughts at all.
Thank goodness, then, for Netflix’s recent success with reality television, the latest example of which, Dating Around, arrived just in time for Valentine’s Day. Much has been said about the streaming service’s semirecent commitment to reality shows that inspire all, in small ways, to live a better life. The other side of that equation is that these shows don’t treat their viewers like small children.
The very presence of the delightfully irreverent host Nicole Byer means no one involved is ever going to take Nailed It more seriously than a silly cooking show deserves. The fact that the challenges prioritize presentation, with tasting the creations as only a mitigating factor, means that viewers are able to judge almost as well as the actual judges, unlike with most cooking shows. While other reality editing rooms might consider it a major professional failure if viewers can usually predict the winner a few minutes before the overly dramatic reveal, Nailed It doesn’t mind. It rides with it and is all the more enjoyable for it. Queer Eye may have imported its format from a different era, but it’s not going to pretend that all one needs to do to change their life is get a new haircut and an ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing storage system for the man cave. It never forgets that any lasting changing begins on the inside. Tidying Up With Marie Kondo would never fly at more traditional channels like HGTV or TLC because the ultimate reveals of the transformations are hardly ever that dramatic. Hoarders mixed with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition it is not, but stripping away the clutter of reality TV tropes has revealed so much more.
Now comes Dating Around, Netflix’s take on one of the oldest and most manipulated reality TV formats. If it seemed like there were no possible gimmicks left on which to base a dating show, well, good, turns out we don’t need them. The premise of the show is simply one single New Yorker going on five blind dates. The only real twist happens in the editing room. Each episode’s protagonist does wear the same thing and go to the same venue on each date (then again, who doesn’t have a favored first date outfit and spot?), and the results are edited and intercut into each other so that each date plays out at the same time. Never mind the fact that there’s no lie detector tests or best friend listening in from a secret location—there’s not even talking head shots or narration. The climax comes at the end when it’s revealed which person the protagonist has chosen for the second date. That’s it.
As anyone who has ever gone on a date should know, it turns out we don’t need gimmicks to add drama or intrigue to the ritual. The first date is inherently one of human’s most vulnerable and emotional experiences, and seeing one person go on five of them at the same time reveals more than MTV’s Room Raiders ever could.
Take the episode featuring Sarah, for example. Her jazzy bobbed hair cut makes it easy to compare her to an F. Scott Fitzgerald heroine, but that wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect. She’s hard to pin down, exactly. Depending on her partner, sometimes we’re rooting for her, while other times it’s hard not to find her a bit cloying in the way girls who move to Brooklyn often are. She cuts one date short and we totally understand why, but a couple scenes later when one of the men flips the script and cuts the date short we also find it justified (“I’m going to go home and masturbate,” mutters Sarah). Turns out, sometimes we really aren’t our best selves on every date. Her episode also proves that the show can still pull some out-of-nowhere surprises without producer manipulation. The sexual chemistry and flirtation with one of her dates leads to one of the series’ few moments of PDA, and we figure her ultimate choice is a foregone conclusion. Turns out, she had other ideas instead.
But it’s a woman named Gurki, a jewelry buyer for Barneys, whose episode is sure to be the most talked about. The format means that serious dating issues many people face in real life have room to come to the surface. Gurki is the product of an arranged marriage, and social pressure and expectation from her Punjabi community lead to her getting married to a teenage sweetheart, a choice she later regrets and corrects with a divorce after her ex cheats on her. One of her dates, Justin, a well-off white man with a beard, accosts her for, to his mind, lying to her ex, ruining eight years of her life, and wonders how anyone can ever trust her again (never mind, however, that Justin admitted to once forcing a girlfriend to get rid of her pet cat only to eventually leave her as well). It plays out in real time and raw onscreen, with no behind-the-scenes prodding. In the process, it reveals so much about the toxic masculinity women may encounter and the bigoted aggressions minorities face on the dating scene.
Dating Around may not be a perfect show (if anything it might be a little too simple—please, Netflix, at the very least give us a pre-credits title card to inform us of what happened to the couple), but it’s perfectly at home in Netflix’s growing stable of buzz-worthy, no-nonsense reality shows. Now, here’s hoping some of the other channels take notice.