Clarissa Tan

Television review: Channel 4’s mating season

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Channel 4 is deep into its summer of love. It’s having a Mating Season and — unusually for the network — it’s not all about sex. Instead, it’s about those fluttery butterflies that occur before the birds and the bees come in, when two people meet for the first time and get to know each other. Not mating then, but dating, which is scarier. When you watch Dates, it seems scarier still. The drama series is about ‘the social minefield’ of modern dating, and what a minefield it is. Ex-escorts, closet gay bankers, Cantonese lesbians — there’s the lot.

The first episode, about two very different people on a blind date, was quite intriguing. But I got sidetracked. The female character, Mia, looked disconcertingly like Samantha Cameron. Furthermore, her date’s name was David! Does Channel 4 know something we don’t about how the Camerons met? But then, the on-screen David was a lorry driver with an authentic-sounding northern accent, so the similarities ended there. Also, when the TV couple finished their meal and headed for the exit, they didn’t leave a child behind, so no, on the whole, probably not the Camerons.

Anyway, Dates is brought to us by the creator of Skins, and is the kind of unexpected thing you’d expect. The show is full of sharp one-liners and angsty people with a certain city slickness. But all that smartness gets wearying after a while. It’s like dating a man too aware of his cleverness — you wait for the repartee to turn into conversation, but it never does. Even Mia’s character, played by Oona Chaplin, who does that vulnerability-under-cockiness thing very well, became grating as the series wore on. In one episode she insisted on tagging along with her date, a doctor, after he gets an emergency call. Masquerading as a hospital staffer, she made the rounds of very ill people as a kind of beautiful, gaping tourist. (One of the patients stopped knocking on death’s door long enough to whisper the mortal line, ‘You are too pretty to be a nurse.’)

The series can’t forget how desirable it is, which stops it from being truly daring. In the fourth episode, good-looking ethnic-Chinese lesbian Erica is having trouble coming out to her family. This is quite thin as plots go, but not as thin as the sheets that she and her new lover Kate are under for most of the show. The bedclothes are arranged terribly artfully, to expose as much as possible without revealing all. The effect is unnatural, and what aims at edgy comes across as conventional.

In the end the dozen characters in Dates are tropes rather than people. They’re not so much a group of individuals as a congregation of characteristics, a multitude of attitudes.

Meanwhile, How to Find Love Online (Channel 4, Tuesday), a two-part documentary, aims to help us with internet dating. The presenter Dawn O’Porter has a wardrobe, which is both Mary Quant and Mary Poppins, to convey the message that online match-ups are fun and wholesome, rather than dispiriting and weird. The show tracks 25 singles trying internet dating for the first time.

On the way, it offers nuggets of information: gays, for instance, are most untruthful on their online dating profiles, while Scots are most truthful. Vegetarians tell more porkies than meat-eaters, while Christians are more apt to lie than atheists. (This is interesting. If ever I embark on internet dating, I will keep a lookout for carnivorous, godless Scotsmen.)

Then there’s ‘interactive reality’ show First Dates (Thursday). Channel 4 puts two people together, they meet in a restaurant, and at the end participants who weren’t happy with their dates can do a call-out to TV viewers to ask if anyone wants to dine with them in a future episode. As usual, Channel 4 has collected a set of slightly loopy people, all the better to mine silly quotes from them.

‘I have slept with a lot of women,’ says a DJ called ‘Terry Turbo’. ‘Some girls have not been perfect 10s. She might be a bit rotund, but if she has good humour and a lovely pair of tits, I’d definitely be involved.’ And they say romance is dead. Still, there are endearing moments. Myriad people swish in and out of the restaurant doors, looking for The One. There’s a couple in their sixties, and he tells her that his daughter and his wife died a month apart. They discuss knitting techniques and Fifty Shades of Grey (the book, not wool tints). Even Terry Turbo comes across as human, expressing doubts about sleeping with his 251st woman just for the sex of it. Because in the end we’re all just looking for love, aren’t we?