After 11 years working as a producer on The Bachelor, Alycia Rossiter was done with dating shows. She had moved onto other realms of reality TV — currently, she's working on a show that reunites the casts of high school musicals as adults for ABC.
Then came a proposal for Dating Around, a Netflix vehicle with a tantalizingly simple premise: Six single people going on five first dates — that’s all. Rossiter was intrigued. “It was a rare thing that I accepted a dating show proposal,” Rossiter told Refinery29 over the phone. "I’m tired of the things that used to work. The truth is, The Bachelor is a fantasy show about Cinderella. The Bachelor isn't real. This show, to me, felt like what real people do: Try to connect with others through conversation."
Dating Around was built to break the mold that dating shows like The Bachelor created. “When you would normally turn left, turn right on this show. Do the opposite of your instincts,” co-creator Paul Franklin told Refinery29 of the Dating Around philosophy. After over a decade of Bachelor and its byproducts, our learned "instincts" for a dating show include expecting loads of drama, cutaway interviews with cast-members, and a built-in sense of direction — is this couple headed toward the aisle?
Co-creators Franklin and Chris Culvenor didn't bother re-fashioning these old tropes. They discarded them entirely. Taking to the streets of New York, producers looked for people outside the set of veneer-wearing, glossy individuals typically seen on dating shows. While Dating Around begins fairly conventionally, with a telegenic real estate agent dating five beautiful women, it unfolds to feature a diverse population more representative of New York. For example, we see the dating life of Leonard, a widower in his 70s, and Mila, a queer Black woman. "Different varieties of people date in different ways. That’s something we were really excited to explore," Culvenor said.
When designing the show, Franklin and Culvenor looked to online dating landscape for inspiration. As a springboard, they asked themselves what dating really looks like for single people in 2019.
"One thing that people who are dating in today's modern world have to deal with is this kind of cacophony of choice. The various personalities. The various places. The visceral experience of a constant stream of people going in and out of your life," said Culvenor, adding that the show's cast immediately got the show's premise. "All of them could relate to what it’s like being out on that dating scene. These are the stories that they tell their friends on weekends over brunch."
As we've noted before, online dating has yet to penetrate the pop culture landscape to the same degree that it's a part of single people's reality. In TV and film, online dating is typically relegated to a punchline. While Dating Around isn't explicitly about swiping on Tinder, it certainly depicts the "exhausting and exhilarating" schedule of a life shaped around swipes, as Franklin puts it.
That said, Rossiter notes that Dating Around is a step removed from online dating in that it eliminates any possibility for pre-judgment (aka internet stalking). "I didn’t tell them a damn thing about the person they were going to meet that day," Rossiter said. "There’s something really great about standing in front of a restaurant and waiting for the person to show up and that smell, the look in their eye, what they’re wearing — all of it is fresh. And you’re either excited or you’re not."
In that sense, Dating Around is more social experiment than conventional dating show, concerned with how we present ourselves in these social interactions set up with the express deliberation of finding a partner. By weaving the five dates together, the show takes on a Groundhog Day-esque quality. The camera shows Sarah telling a story on one date, then cuts to her on another date, finishing up the same tale. "Everyone clicks into a dating version of themselves. They tell the same stories, the same jokes," Culvenor says. "That’s really telling, on how we present ourselves to the world around us."
Essentially, Dating Around was meant to show dating as it is: sometimes awkward, sometimes seamless, full of silences, full of surprises. To achieve that realism, producers were extremely hands-off on the dates. Rossiter says the only time she spoke to cast-members was during the breaks between set changes, as opposed to the The Bachelor, when producers are heavily involved.
But without the producers' prodding, would the show work? At the start of filming, Culvenor and Franklin briefly questioned whether a story would ultimately unfold from the ingredients they put together. "We set the stage. We cast the people. But what’s going to happen? It's like, we’re in the car, but we’re not holding onto the steering wheel," Franklin recalled.
Their worry was unfounded — drama certainly ensued. In one memorable moment, a date that begins with crackling flirtation ends with a cruel take-down. On another dating show, the camera might change the music to indicate the sudden change in mood and zoom in on Gurki's face as she's insulted. These cues would tell the viewers how to read the interaction. However, Dating Around films the moment seamlessly, allowing us to interpret the scene.
That's because Dating Around has no goal beyond depicting the present. It's here where Dating Around is its most provocative — and perhaps frustrating, for those of us raised on a diet of dating shows. The Bachelor, famously, concludes in a proposal. One of the contestants wins the game of love.
Dating Around, on the other hand, merely ends with the insinuation of a second date. The episode's subject chooses one person, and together they walk into the city.
For Rossiter, that's the most romantic part of Dating Around. "Romance for me isn’t about the second date. Romance is possibility. I think the ending of our show is possibility. It's a city with millions of people, and into that crowd you walk alone, looking for someone, or with someone else. What's going to happen?" Rossiter says.
Maybe something will happen. Maybe nothing will. But ultimately, knowing what happens next isn't the point of Dating Around.
"The beauty of this show is that nothing happens. Somehow, audiences have come to grow accustomed to real people having extraordinary, not comfortable days. That’s not really what I’m interested in putting on television. I think that our country’s a mess right now. Let’s put a good day on TV," Rossiter said.