Dates is a nine-episode series of half-hour instalments, detailing the interactions between strangers that have contacted each other on a dating website and agreed to meet up. What follows is best described as nine short vignettes of their time together, structured entirely around the date itself. There are no glimpses of any other part of their lives beyond the time spent on their dates, and we learn nothing of their backgrounds beyond what they chose to talk about. Almost by necessity the acting has to be of high standard, as most of the episodes revolve around "talking heads" – that is, actors simply exchanging dialogue with each other. To make this engaging for an audience is each actor's personal challenge.
The idea of internet dating is total anaemia to me, and what was demonstrated here is enough to put anyone off it for good. The show could more accurately be called "bewildered hopefuls date complete weirdoes", for at one point during my note-taking I wrote "this feels like some bizarre social experiment" only for one of the characters to turn around and actually say that she signed up with the dating website as part of her own personal social experiment.
Because drama is built on conflict, most of the dates end (or even start) in complete disaster, and because the participants are characters on a TV show, they can't do what any normal person would do and simply leave. Instead they're forced to stick it out for their required twenty-five minutes of screen time.
This sets the tone of the show, not as a comedy perhaps, but as a quirky drama that's a somewhat awkward blend of earnestness and self-deprecating humour. Yet by the halfway mark I was suitably intrigued. That we only spend a brief amount of time with the characters and learn about them in what is (for the most part) "real time", means there is a voyeuristic quality to the proceedings that draws you in.
Of the revolving cast of characters, there are a few that could count as "regulars": Erica, a mostly-closeted lesbian struggling with her sexual identity in the face of her family's conservatism, Jenny, a mild-mannered kleptomaniac school teacher trying to get past her broken engagement, and the trio of David (Nice Guy widower), Stephen (narcissistic doctor) and Mia (the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl who hates you).
Oona Chaplin as Mia is beautiful. It's easy to understand why Robb Stark gave up everything for her, because she really is stunning. It's the bone structure, the eyes, the lips – and in this show she has to be beautiful, as there's no other reason why men would put up with her appalling rudeness (including to a waitress, which is surely the most idiotic thing you can ever do – these people have access to your food for goodness sake!)
She's what passes for the main character considering the amount of episodes she appears in, and is no doubt the most divisive character among viewers. Is she beguilingly broken or just a pain in the ass? I honestly couldn't decide, but clearly she has a lot of issues that an eight-day relationship with a guy she's met on a dating website isn't going to resolve.
Will Mellor's David is a salt of the earth lorry driver, whose nice guy qualities are demonstrated by the fact that he's a widower (as opposed to a divorcee) and refusing to take advantage of a nineteen year old who initially lies about her age (anyone else a little tired of a male character's decency being projected through him not being a sex offender? It sets the bar pretty low, is all I'm saying).
All sarcasm aside, he's probably the most likable character in the show, making you want to yell: "run you idiot!" at the TV when he becomes embroiled with Mia.
The third point of their quasi-love triangle is Stephen, a discontented forty year old doctor that oozes wealth and confidence, and flips effortlessly from totally charming to utterly obnoxious. Ben Chaplin is sadly one of the most underrated character actors out there – he barely scrapes the C-list but has been great in everything I've seen him in.
Their episodes generally involve the three of them smoking in each other's faces, talking awkwardly about sex, making a few insightful comments, and making you wish they were all in therapy.
Okay, I'm laying on the snark thick here. It just so happens that one of David's episodes, in which he inadvertently goes on a date with nineteen year old Ellie on his thirty-fourth birthday, manages to be the best episode of the bunch. It's funny and poignant, capturing two people at pivotal points in their lives who will probably never meet again, spending a few hours together as they contemplate their rather bleak futures. It contains perhaps the most affecting line of the show, when Ellie states: "I'm aware that this Hindenberg of a date is crashing into flames, but maybe if we keep talking everything in the world will be alright."
You could easily watch this episode as a standalone story, especially for the sake of Montanna Thompson as Ellie, an endearingly hapless and directionless teenager who doesn't know what to do with herself. We've all been there.
Also worth the watch is Sheridan Smith's stint as Jenny, the introverted school teacher who has recently broken up with her fiancé. She doesn't give away many details, but it soon becomes clear that it almost certainly had something to do with her kleptomaniac tendencies.
Smith has only two episodes to work with, but they're sharply written and performed, and in that limited time she brings to life a complex woman who accidentally finds herself in the role of The Other Woman and yet still manages to claw some self-respect out of the situation. And as it happens, The Wife is played by Amanda Hale, better known as Margaret Beauford from The White Queen, who gives us all a lesson in what it means to be a One Scene Wonder.
Unfortunately, it's Katie McGrath and Gemma Chan's storyline that's the weakest. Chemistry is a hard thing to pin down, but both seemed rather uncomfortable here, possibly because they were required to sell an instantaneous attraction and ensuing connection that seemed filled with weak writing, long pauses and awkward framing. Plus, Katie's character Kate doesn't actually behave like a very nice person.
The script also seems utterly unprepared to deal with the issues it raises. Erica is a lesbian whose family is in denial about her sexuality, and along the way some pretty offensive clichés are ticked: the stereotype of the overbearing Chinese family who monitors their daughter's every move, the bi-phobia that ensues when Kate angrily accuses Erica of being "straight and bored" when she admits she's had a boyfriend in the past, and the general idea that Erica is a terrible person for not openly embracing her sexuality in the face of what's obviously a very difficult (and potentially dangerous) situation.
Her second episode sees her forced to go on a date organized by her brother with a guy who is crude, racist, convinced at one point that he can de-gay her, and actually suggests that she's shallow for not attempting to see beneath his unattractive exterior. Dude, it's not your outside that's the problem. The date ends with him getting drunk, refusing to pay the bill and getting into a fist-fight with the owners of the restaurant (I think this is meant to be escalating situational comedy, but it's not even remotely funny) before a "heart-warming" moment when he finally inspires Erica to come out to her brother.
To watch both episodes is to watch a shy young woman getting treated like shit by both her dates because she's struggling with her sexual identity in a way that doesn't suit them.
As you can probably tell, Dates is a grab-bag. Along with plenty of quality material, there's a substantial amount of rampant stupidity. For every character that's written like a real adult, there's another that behaves like a weird teenager.
There are some sharp bits of character insight (as when Mia is visibly shaken at the implications of a simple Jenga game), a few withering snippets of dialogue (the devastating "a gap from what?" when Ellie announces she's on a gap-year), and a few walk-on roles that speak volumes (Stephen blissfully walks past a hospital colleague who – in a matter of mere seconds – lets the audience know that she's totally crushed at the sight of him with another woman), and it’s all these little gems that makes the show worth seeing at least once.
Since it's outside my preferred genre I probably won't watch it again, especially given that most of it is devoted to the unpleasantry of watching people get belittled and mystified by their dates, but it works best when considered a curiosity piece. Time will tell if a second season is commissioned – on the one hand the show's format allows for an endless revolving-door of characters, on the other that very same formula prevents any sustained character development.