Even just a few years ago, there was a healthy amount of stigma attached to meeting someone online. Now, it can be more unusual than not to hear about a couple that hooked up without the internet or their smartphone’s help. Online dating has bled into the pop culture consciousness at a steady clip; shows like The Mindy Project even worked out a deal to integrate the dating app Tinder into its narrative. Dates, however, lives and dies by online dating. It’s not a feature, but the entire premise, as each episode follows a different couple that met online. The first two episodes are first dates between mismatched pairs of people. The intimate setting and two-person cast makes each episode feel like a play, which can work when the actors are appealing. As the Dates drama unfolds, though, the self-important dialogue and blatant stabs at hitting some human truism become more exhausting than illuminating.
It’s not unsurprising that these characters are less than subtle, since the series comes from Skins co-creator Bryan Elsley. But the Skins teens evolved past their initial clichés with moments of startling self-awareness, which is nowhere to be found in Dates. With only 20 minutes to give its characters, Dates decides to lean into its clichés and then stay there like it’s making some grand statement on the human condition.
The first episode and date follows blue collar Northerner David (Will Mellor), who is giving this online dating thing a go for the first time, and posh Londoner Mia (Game Of Thrones’ Oona Chaplin), who gives David a fake name and almost ditches the date entirely. David is a noble nice guy; Mia is a damaged princess. Mia’s seen it all, but oh boy, does David have her number! The actors are game, and do their best with the material. Chaplin in particular is immensely charming, especially as she spits out acidic lines like, “Don’t wear the ties with the jeans, it makes you look like a Belgian.” But the show wants us to believe that David and Mia have some sort of unspoken connection after watching 20 minutes of them talking, and the “white knight sweeps an ice princess off her feet” plot is flat. As David insists with great force that she had to have felt something, it’s supposed to be some moment of truth, but the result is just needlessly aggressive.
The second episode fares even worse. It’s another mismatched pair, with nervous schoolteacher Jenny (Sheridan Smith) grinning and bearing it through a boozy date with jerk finance worker Nick (Neil Maskell). Again, the actors are game, and there are some nice touches, like the fact that Nick doesn’t actually sit down at the table with Jenny for a good five minutes while he sizes her up. But attempts to flesh these people out beyond those log lines are thin at best, and the episode’s later clichés expand to include that tired stereotype of promiscuous gay men having sex wherever they can.
And therein lies the problem with Dates. Despite trying to be something fresh, something that taps into the world of modern dating and how we represent ourselves online, the end result is far too stale. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the series originally premiered on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2013 (for reference, Tinder launched in the fall of 2012), but these characters would have felt tired then, too. Despite some solid actors and occasional snappy lines, there’s just no hiding the fact that these dates read like high school drama exercises. The six-episode season promises to delve further into these characters’ lives, which may give them the room they need to evolve past their two-dimensional constraints, but it will be an uphill battle after such an uninspired start.