Friday, July 24, 2009

"Dating in the Dark" Is Not Your Average Dating Show

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

It all started out so ordinary. As I watched the opening seconds of ABC's new summer reality program "Dating in the Dark" (Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern), with it's sweeping shots of a mansion surrounded by palm trees, and with the drama-inducing synth music playing in the background, it felt like the network was tossing out another "Bachelor" knock-off. After all, while ABC has a track record of programming innovative dramas and comedies (like, for example, "Better Off Ted") over the last season or two, it is also responsible for the patient zero of dating programs ("The Bachelor"), as well as reality fare both light ("Dancing with the Stars") and ridiculous ("Wipeout").

So it would not have surprised me at all if "Dating in the Dark" was just another piece of summer fluff, and my hope was that it wouldn't be toxic (like, say, NBC's "Momma's Boys"). But from the very beginning, "Dating in the Dark" announces that it is trying to do more, telling us in a voice-over that there are no cash prizes and no eliminations. Rather, the show is an "experiment" to see what happens when people are forced to put aside some basic ideas -- namely, judging people based on looks -- when meeting members of the opposite sex.

The premise of "Dating in the Dark" is pretty simple: Each week three guys and three girls move into opposite wings of a mansion. They only interact in a room kept so dark that they cannot see anything. Luckily, due to the wonders of infra-red technology, television viewers can see everything that happens in the dark room.

The premiere episode brought us two sets of daters that fit neatly into types. Stephen is a 31-year-old self-described genius, an SAT tutor whose brain seems to be running a million miles per hour at all times. Melanie, also 31, is a brainy hippie chick who "never learned to flirt," mainly, she says, because she was raised by a single dad. On the opposite side of the spectrum are Leni and Allister. Leni, a 27-year-old nanny from Melbourne, Australia, is outgoing and pretty, and you get the sense she has no trouble attracting guys. Similarly, Allister, a 29-year-old DJ from Manchester, England, is handsome and charismatic, but he has commitment and intimacy issues stemming from a rough upbringing, including his mother abandoning his family when he was a child. Finally, Seth, a 31-year-old audio-visual designer, and Christina, a 28-year-old marketing manager, are more a kind of average Joe and Josephine, both attractive enough to find dates, but neither the type that stands out from the pack.

After a group date in the dark, a series of one-on-one get-togethers followed. Interestingly, after the group date, each person was allowed to ask one person out, and the only person not to get an invitation was Allister. Already, we see the difference that being in the dark makes.

In fact, during the dates (group and individual), the house guests reached some interesting conclusions. Leni immediately realized that she didn't have to worry about how her hair or clothes looked in the dark, noting, "I love that. They're not looking at your boobs. They have to listen to you." Christina unintentionally reveals her true colors early on, saying that it is "weird" making judgments about people from only their voices. After connecting with Seth during a one-on-one date, they kiss, and Christina says afterwards, "I have no idea what I kissed in there." She hopes that when she sees him, he doesn't "turn out to be Shrek." Melanie, meanwhile, immediately nails Allister, explaining that he uses his sense of humor to deflect people so he doesn't have to open up to them. That realization went a long way toward building a bond between them.

An interesting twist came part-way through, when host Rossi Moreale, a veteran MC of low-level reality shows like "Can You Duet?" (and, according to the ABC Web site, a former starting wide receiver on the University of Arkansas football team), reveals to the guys and women that experts analyzed questionnaires they filled out and determined who their ideal matches in the house were. Not surprisingly, the experts placed Seth and Christina together, but in a switcheroo, Leni and Stephen and Melanie and Allister, seemingly opposites, were judged to be best-suited together. As the house guests had more dates and began pairing up, the experts turned out to be correct, as the three "ideal" couples were formed.

At this point, a sketch artist was brought in so that the participants could describe what they thought their dates looked like. Leni's description resulted in a sketch of bookish Stephen that, as one of the guys later pointed out, resembled Dolph Lundgren. Seth had Christina as a blonde, but, as she spits out, she is very much a brunette. Allister correctly ascertains that Melanie has curly hair and glasses, but he doesn't associate those attributes with her plain look, resulting in a picture of a woman more glamorous than Melanie.

The whole episode leads to what is, essentially, two moments of truth. First is the reveal, in which each couple goes into the dark room, and then, one at a time, one person is revealed, then the other. The idea is that each person can't see how his or her selected date reacts upon seeing him or her for the first time. Not surprisingly, the interviews after the reveals were interesting. Leni is shocked that Stephen is not Dolph Lundgren, describing him as the kind of man her mother would call "a lovely boy." And she doesn't mean it as a compliment. Christina looks like she's swallowed a bug (an army of bugs, really), clearly appalled at Seth's looks, which I have to say, shocked me. Seth may not be mistaken for Brad Pitt, but I can't imagine most women would have been as disappointed as Christina was. (Interestingly, Seth was a bit too excited about Christina's appearance, waxing rhapsodic about different parts of her body.) Finally, Allister was clearly unhappy with Melanie's plain-Jane looks, as much as he tried to cover it, while Melanie seemed mildly surprised at how handsome Allister was, later explaining that in the real world, she would never be able to approach someone who looked like him.

In the second key moment, each person had to decide whether or not to meet his or her date. If a meeting was desired, the person proceeded to the balcony overlooking the driveway. If not, the person went out the front door. Stephen was up first, and, obviously, he chose to meet Leni. Leni, on the other hand, tells the camera that while she and Stephen got along great, she goes for the bad-boy type, not a guy like Stephen. Nevertheless, after a sufficient reality-television-approved amount of time to build dramatic tension, Leni appears, and she and Stephen embrace, later leaving together in a show-provided car.

Next up was Seth and Christina. Again, Seth headed for the balcony, while Christina talked to the camera, admitting that she and Seth connected, but also complaining that she wasn't attracted to his physical looks. In the end, she walks out of the house without even looking up to say goodbye to Seth, leaving him staring on in disbelief as she left. Seth was shocked and angry, and his reactions seemed real, way more legitimate than what you expect to see on reality television. In a tearful interview, Christina confronts her shallowness, admitting that looks are important to her and saying, "I wish that aspect didn't matter so much to me." But what is stopping her? I can't imagine she will have garnered a lot of sympathy with viewers, and, more importantly, I can't imagine her ending up in a healthy relationship with such an unhealthy approach to men.

The Melanie-Allister finale was a bit of an anti-climax after Christina's cold-blooded ditching of Seth. Much like it was assumed the guys would show up in the first two instances, Melanie heads straight to the balcony while Allister dithers, giving the guy version of Leni's speech (she gets him, but he dates a different type of girl, which was really code for the fact that he dates better looking women). And much like Leni, Allister shows up anyway, and the two of them leave in a car together.

I have to say, I didn't believe for a second that Allister and Leni, the "hot ones," had discarded their biases to date the "nerdy ones," Melanie and Stephen. Rather, I think each had decided to be nice, nothing more. It's not like they were agreeing to a wedding. From what I can tell, all they were consenting to was, at most, a date. Showing up and spending some time with someone they liked but had discovered was not as attractive as they had hoped hardly asks for much, and it seems to be a small price to pay for (depending how cynical you are) either protecting their dates from the humiliation of a television rejection or protecting themselves from having to admit in front of millions of viewers that they were rejecting people they liked because they weren't good looking enough. I'm not sure if that makes Christina a hero or an even bigger selfish brat. Should we applaud her for her honesty (which revealed her to be shallow)? Or slam her for needlessly embarrassing someone she thought she really liked? I guess that's up for each viewer to decide. I went with the second option.

I was kind of fascinated by "Dating in the Dark." On a network reality dating show, you don't expect to see people act kind of real, at least at key moments, and you certainly don't expect the result to be so complicated and challenging. I found it interesting how amazingly shallow Christina revealed herself to be. She wasn't the most likable person throughout, but when she leaves Seth hanging because he wasn't up to her lofty standards for the perfect guy, she lost what little good will she had fostered. It was also interesting to me how little effect the experience seemed to have on Leni and Allister. Sure, they connected with people very different from their normal types. And sure, unlike Christina, they had the decency to show up at the end. But I didn't feel for one second like either of them would approach relationships differently the next day.

But I guess that's the one missing piece of "Dating in the Dark": the future. We don't know how this experience will really affect the participants down the line. Leni and Allister were asked to do so little in the end (show up), so as much as was revealed about the six house guests throughout the episode, we don't really know what the payoff was. A segment looking at everyone six months later would have told us far more about what was really learned (if anything) by everyone involved. (At the end of the premiere episode, there was a notice that you could learn more about what happened with the three couples by going to, but as of this writing, there is no information about them on the site.)

That quibble aside, I have to give ABC full credit for, once again, going against the grain and taking a chance on a smart and unique approach to a familiar genre. While I'm not arguing that "Dating in the Dark" is science on television, it is more thought-provoking, thoughtful and, really, good-natured than any dating show I've seen. The program tests the participants, it doesn't set out to humiliate them. It's not Michael Apted's "Up" films, but at the same time, the heart of "Dating in the Dark" is closer to those classic documentaries than it is to "Momma's Boys."

I don't mean to suggest that the program is work, though. I found it genuinely entertaining. The participants were clever at times, and because the aim was more than just hooking up, there was actual drama in waiting to see how things turned out, way more than in the contrived ceremonies on other dating shows. (Does anyone really care who wants to stay in a house or on a bus with Bret Michaels, Tila Tequila, Flavor Flav or the Ikki Twins?)

Even the production was more interesting than the average dating show. When Moreale would explain to the house guests what would be happening next, the boring exposition was spiced up a bit by clever editing, with Moreale beginning to speak to one group, and then seamlessly continuing to speak with the other. The use of light in the reveals in the dark room were interestingly done, too. Everything was low-key, but given the less exploitative bent of the show, it worked.

When I decided to watch "Dating in the Dark" so I could write about it, I never thought I'd watch another episode. But the premiere was so well done, and raised so many interesting questions, I think I'll have to check it out again to see if the premise wears well over time.

Don't let the shots of the mansion and familiar musical cues fool you. The program may be on the same network as "The Bachelor," but ABC has broken new ground with "Dating in the Dark."