TV dating shows have come in many guises since the birth of the genre in the ’70s. But from the days of Cilla Black having a lorra lorra fun on Blind Date to the frankly terrifying trend of reality shows like The Bachelor, the fundamental principle has remained the same: get people together and see if sparks fly. At any one time, there is some form of dating show on; it’s a seemingly endless genre respawning itself into oblivion on a channel whose name is some combination of the words Sky Entertainment Lifestyle Reality HD +1.
It is imperative to remember that dates are about tricking the other party into thinking you are a nice, normal, well-rounded person. But increasingly, TV dating seems to be moving away from this attempt at self-sanitisation. Take Baggage (C4) a show essentially about shame. Three potential suitors reveal their embarrassing secrets, or ‘baggage’, and it is then up to the contestant to decide which they find the least off-putting. Humiliation is encouraged, although a good 40 per cent of the show seems to involve Gok Wan just repeating the word ‘baggage’.
Similarly in Sing Date (Sky Living), the audience revels in seeing singletons making fools of themselves. It’s pure car-crash telly, but this mortifying karaoke-based torture results in a surprising number of promising matches.
As well as humiliation, superficiality abounds in TV dating formats. In Take Me Out (Saturdays, ITV), a panel of 30 women can turn their light off (indicating they don’t want a date) just from one look at a contestant, while a nation muses over just how many more tedious jokes Paddy McGuinness can feasibly make. Dating in the Dark (Sky Living) attempts to eschew this shallowness by getting its hapless couples to meet each other in a pitch-black room. But wandering hands and sneaky smooches are usually regretted once the light-reveal allows potential matches to see one another. All too often compatible partners are dismissed on the basis that they’re now visible.
It is for that reason that I find Channel 4’s The Undateables, now in its second series, so refreshing. I have qualms with the title, but the show itself is touching, genuine, and sensitively presented. In each episode, we meet three new people, all of them living with a challenging condition that can make dating difficult. Instead of accentuating these people’s differences, The Undateables succeeds in showing how universal their experiences are.
Heterosexuality dominates, as does the prevailing idea that absolutely everybody in the world must either have a partner, or be looking for one. Dating on TV has a lot to answer for. It reinforces gender norms, and embraces vacuity. I am grateful that occasionally a show like The Undateables comes along to restore faith in humanity.