Romantic comedy was everywhere on television during the 2014-15 season, from the heartening successes (You’re the Worst) to the miserable failures (Marry Me) to the promising shows that struggled to find an audience (RIP Selfie). But some of the best recent examples of the genre have come from British TV; in the past few months, the charming series Catastrophe and Scrotal Recall have reached US viewers thanks to Amazon and Netflix (respectively). Tonight, The CW will premiere yet another romance-focused UK import, Skins creator Bryan Elsley’s half-hour drama Dates.
Rather than tracking the evolution of a single relationship, Dates, which originally aired on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2013, follows several users of a dating website. Each episode is comprised of a different first date, with some characters recurring throughout the season. While this premise could yield lightweight, summer programming about one-night stands and instant connections, Dates takes a somewhat darker view of romance than its comedic contemporaries (with the possible exception of You’re the Worst), reveling in sad and awkward moments shared by unhappy characters.
The first couple we meet are Dave (Will Mellor) and Mia (Oona Chaplin) — who, for the purposes online dating, has rechristened herself “Celeste.” This isn’t Mia’s only deception. She hasn’t come dressed as she said she would, so it takes a while for Dave to find her. And when he does, she denies that she’s Celeste. Then she finally comes clean, but only to tell him, “I’ve decided not to do this.” What follows is a series of false starts, with the balance of power constantly shifting between her and Dave, who initially comes off as a sweet, average guy but soon grows impatient with beautiful Mia’s mind games. And then comes “the big twist” that proves he hasn’t put all of his cards on the table, either, followed by a “surprise ending” that most viewers won’t find even a little bit surprising.
In the second episode, which will air back-to-back with “Mia and Dave” tonight, schoolteacher Jenny (Sheridan Smith) shows up late for a date with Nick (Neil Maskell), a finance guy. She’s adorably nervous, he’s just as brash as you might expect for someone in his line of work… and, as with Mia and Dave, they’ve both got juicy secrets lurking under their (spectacularly beige, in this case) exteriors. Another “big twist” ensues, resulting in another “surprise ending” for two characters the show presents more as curiosities than people. And this is where it becomes difficult to imagine Dates becoming much more than a mildly amusing, mildly depressing diversion.
But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t improve. Though The CW only provided the first two episodes to critics, the most intriguing aspect of Dates doesn’t kick in until Episode 3, which sends Mia out with a different man and presumably establishes a more serialized narrative. There’s plenty of potential in the idea of watching how the same characters interact with different romantic prospects, and investigating why some couples click and others fizzle. Elsley, whose great feat with the teen cult classic Skins was in endowing melodramatic plots and extreme characters with a wrenching believability, is certainly capable of getting viewers invested in this kind of story. And the show’s dialogue and direction, which give the episodes the elegant (if low-budget) feel of short films, are solid enough to support stronger storylines.
Television schedules may be stuffed with romantic narratives these days, but American TV in particular could use a great show about casual dating — a ritual that has changed so drastically over the past decade and only continues to evolve with introduction of every new digital tool. Even if it picks up, Dates may be a bit too British to become that show, though I’m tempted to keep watching in hopes that it will prove me wrong. At the very least, maybe it will give stateside TV creators a few good ideas.