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Netflix's "Dating Around” Feels Subversive Even Though It Shouldn’t Be

With its inclusive casting and thoughtful editing, the reality show captures what dating actually feels like.

Posted on June 18, 2020, at 3:58 p.m. ET

Annie Flanagan / NETFLIX

Ben from Dating Around

As social media and apps have taken over dating, the whole process has become more and more mediated. Setting up a dating profile requires curating and selling yourself like a brand or a reality TV character. And daters often google each other and check out Instagrams before meeting up.

One would think that these shifts would prompt reality dating shows to organically update themselves for the times. Instead, somehow, the genre has just leaned back into the conventional and retro. Shows like The Bachelor or Love Is Blind, for instance, remain obsessed with the idea of marriage and long-term commitment, caught up in TV tropes about forever love and The One that aren’t easy to depict in original or convincing ways.

But then there is the quietly subversive Dating Around. The reality show premiered on Netflix last year, and the second season just came out last weekend. The show’s first season attracted praise from critics because of the way it actually brought romance back to the genre, while also staying true to the swipe-for-next-prospect feel of current dating.

Both seasons consist of six bingeable episodes, in each of which a protagonist goes on five dates. The dates are seamlessly edited together in a way that almost feels like a short story. There are no talking-head interviews spelling out motivations; you just have to read faces and cues. There’s no contrived drama, though drama organically emerges. (Though there was arguably more drama last season than in the current one.) There’s also no host. Instead, the show is set up to make viewers feel like we’re just eavesdropping on a date.

Perhaps most shockingly, the show isn’t centered around the kind of influencer-ready straight white daters of other franchises. The first season, set in New York, included daters ranging from their twenties up to their sixties, it featured queer people of color, and the white participants didn’t just date other white people. The same casting and production choices inform the current season, which is set in New Orleans.

As the blindingly white and straight Barbie and Ken brand of shows like The Bachelor undergo a long-overdue racial reckoning, Dating Around, a far superior show, is just one demonstration that a less white-centric brand of dating reality television is also just far more interesting.

Courtesy Of Netflix

Maria and Deva

Dating Around’s showrunner, Alycia Rossiter, actually knew all the usual tropes and production tricks from spending a decade working on The Bachelor franchise. She specifically went out of her way not to cast aspiring influencers at clubs, seeking people at less obvious places like libraries, bridge clubs, and bookstores. “We wanted to offer up a diversity of the characters — different backgrounds, different ethnicities, gay, straight, a whole range of different people,” she told Vulture last year.

One of the featured daters, Lex Liang, a gay, Asian American costume and set designer, remembered asking a producer: “What do I have to offer? I don’t look like that dude — I don’t race cars.” “That’s exactly why I’m asking you,” the producer replied.

The Lex episode is a perfect example of why the show is so good. In a short intro, friends and family describe why he’s a catch: “He’s a gay James Dean,” one friend says lovingly, and he certainly looks the part with a fitted white tee and jeans. Later, Lex talks to one date about what he’s termed “next-best-thingitis” in gay male dating, bonds with a fellow self-described “gaysian” over their drag personas, and subtly asks his dates whether they were tops or bottoms. His man-bunned football-turned-rugby player date goes with: “I’d say I’m very dominant in most situations,” while an Italian guy tries to dodge the question, saying, “I think on a first date we can skip that conversation,” to which Lex retorts, “Doesn’t that inform the second date?”

Perhaps most impressively, as Lex’s dates draw to a close, he friend-zones an aggressively oblivious dog-walker-by-day/songwriter-by-night who made him listen to his lyrics during dinner.

It’s the show’s focus on the magic and awkwardness of such moments that makes it so compelling to watch. The date itself is the arc. From when the daters meet each other — we see their initial reactions — to when they start chatting at the bar, to the move to the dinner table, to the segue into dessert somewhere else, and finally, to the decision to either split a Lyft home or not, each little moment is full of the fraughtness and excitement of being on an actual date.

A friend who watched the new season at the same time I did texted me that the main daters are a little less memorable this season, and I agree. My favorite episode was probably the one featuring Deva, a Black musician from Hawaii, who is, as one friend puts it, really owning her sexuality and beauty and trying to find someone who won’t be intimidated by her.

Deva dates all genders and goes on dates with straight men and queer women in her episode. They talk about their jobs — a quirky queer costume designer explains that she feels she inherited her sewing “juju” from her dead grandmother; a deep-voiced guy tells her how he went out in the world and made money and now lives off property he owns. Deva seems to connect most with Maria, a fellow artist who makes masks, and they bond over their lives as artists and their dissatisfaction with labels like “bisexual” and “lesbian.”

The show doesn’t need to create villain edits. The deep-voiced guy, for instance, gets creepier as their date goes on, first claiming he divorced his ex-wife because she wanted to be “kept,” then explaining his theory about how everyone is crazy: either “homicidal crazy” or “suicidal crazy.” By the end, he’s telling her that he loves women so much that he can only date women who are also bisexual, though exclusively with other women. In a subtly captured moment of dude obliviousness, he doesn’t catch her tone as Deva tells him the date has been “enlightening.”

Each little moment is full of the fraughtness and excitement of being on an actual date. 

The editing makes art out of the intricacies of ending a date and friend-zoning. “I think you should find me on my Instagram?” Deva tells a sweet but basic chiropractor who is clearly besotted with her. Heather, a makeup artist who seems horrified by a butch, bearish finance guy who hunts for fun, tells him toward the end of their date that she just doesn’t think he would be able to understand her artistic side. “I’m a weird girl,” she repeats, putting the onus on herself until he gets the hint.

There are also a lot of sweet moments this season. There’s an earnest white computer science professor, Ben, who brings flowers to each date, has a tendency to repeat what his date just said, and is horrified when he ends up with a student from his university. Brandon, a gay kindergarten teacher, goes on a date with a hot guy who only offers what he calls “base-level Ronald” on first dates and doesn’t believe in relationships. Brandon gets him to bring his guard down enough for a kiss.

Part of the fun of the show is seeing who gets picked for a second date — the answer can even be no one — but the journey of the date itself is so interesting that what happens after the first date is more of an afterthought.

There aren’t really any big jerks, or dramatic confrontations, this time around. Last season there was a much-discussed scene featuring main dater Gurki, a beautiful 36-year-old Indian American woman, born in France. She is talking to a cute white guy, who can’t let go of the fact that she admitted to having doubts about her first marriage. She explains that her parents’ marriage was arranged, that she didn’t feel it was possible to date without marriage as an end goal. “I know that Indian weddings are a big to-do,” he says. “I know what’s up.”

Not long after, he turns on her and tells her not to rely on the “Indian thing” as an excuse for why she had “lied.” “You lied to a man,” he says. “How could I ever trust you? How would anyone ever trust you?” It’s one of the most accurate depictions I’ve seen of a certain kind of liberal white masculinity — one that claims to “know what’s up” and yet is so fragile that it can only see a woman finding herself and coming into her agency as “lying.” (Spoiler alert: Though she doesn’t pick any of the daters on the show, in an unexpected plot twist, she ended up dating the director.)

Often representations of race on reality television are reduced to racist scandals. Former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay pointed out in a recent interview that the Bachelor franchise doesn’t even seem to vet a contestant’s social media before bringing them on the show; it’s as if they want to have racist castmate storylines in order to create tension and then “educate” the majority white audience at the Black contestant’s expense.

Dating Around isn’t remotely didactic, and yet through its casting, editing, and production, it focuses on the subtle ways both misunderstandings and connections can emerge across race and gender. In the current season, Demi, who is Dominican, is clearly not into a sweet gringo in a floral shirt telling a weird story about peeing in a car. Instead, she bonds with a Honduran guy over their shared Latinx identity; he talks about being arrested in a mistaken identity moment. Meanwhile, a suave guy named Justin talks to one of his dates about colorism in the Filipino diaspora.

When white cis-hetero relations are the norm, it’s impossible to bring out other nuances. Dating Around’s subtle move away from those norms is, sadly, more bonkers than any of the outlandish premises peddled by most other reality dating shows.●

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