I wasn't sure how to feel when my editors emailed me about this assignment. They wanted me to write about the NBC reality series First Dates — and to go on a first date with somebody from the show. "We think you'd be great for it!" they assured me. I asked myself: am I just such a catch that I'd clearly be an amazing date for whoever the lucky guy would be? Or was my workplace openness about being a 26-year-old cat lady being taken as a desperate cry for professional intervention? Dear God. Maybe my longtime singleness and utter lack of dating life just emanates from my pores at this point (signature scent: Lonely Girl by Carolyn Todd). But I decided the only way to proceed was deluding myself into believing the former and carrying on, self esteem intact. I would give First Dates a shot.
First Dates — executive produced by Ellen DeGeneres, narrated by rom-com legend Drew Barrymore, and based on the hit U.K. series — is truly unlike any other reality dating show on air right now. It is a refreshingly uncynical endeavor: unapologetic in its optimism and endearing in its sincerity. The premise is super simple. Every episode follows several pairs of people meeting each other, for the first time, for drinks and dinner at MK in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. There are nervous giggles, first kisses, awkward moments and serious conversations. At the end, they decide if they'd like to go out again. And that's it. There are no tense eliminations or annoying gimmicks; no scripted blowouts or manipulated drama. First Dates is about the organic connection that forms between two people on their first meeting, full stop.
The couples, who reflect the diversity in age, sexuality, and race that we see in the American dating pool today, are matched up by casting directors and producers. I wanted to find somebody who actually lived in the New York area, so I looked at that list of candidates, did my research, picked a guy, and crossed my fingers he was down to go on a blind date with an entertainment journalist writing about the show. My primary superficial requirement is height: I'm 5'11 and strongly prefer to date guys over 6'. After previewing all the guys' episodes, I chose Kenny, a tall and handsome Black 31-year-old business development exec on Wall Street who appeared on episode 1, seemed funny, and didn't give off any serial killer vibes.
Kenny suggested we meet at a burger place in Hell's Kitchen. I'm a vegetarian who avoids midtown Manhattan at all costs, so we were off to a great start. I felt better when I arrived and learned that A) the restaurant had a bunch of great veggie options, and B) Kenny was even taller in person. Cuter, too. He seemed genuinely happy to be there, so that put me at ease. We sat at our booth and dove into the awkward small talk: where are you from, what do you do, how long have you been in New York, etc. I asked him how he got into doing the show; he asked me if I had ever done something like this before. Gone on a date for work and written about it? No, sir.
After a few minutes and a few sips of pinot (me) and a watermelon cocktail (him), I started to relax a little. We talked about how weird the whole thing was, which made it less weird, and Kenny joked that we were basically acting out a rom-com scene (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Trainwreck, Never Been Kissed). We laughed about how we were both so embarrassed that we were dripping sweat when we first arrived, a combination of nerves and the sweltering humidity. I let my withering sarcasm loose, and he told me I was funnier than I first let on. We went a little deeper, into our families, our last relationships, how weird dating in New York can be, and #thoughtsonlife. I ordered another glass and texted the friends I was keeping posted on the evening: don't worry guys, he's cool.
After dinner, Kenny told me he'd like to see me again, got my number, and put me in a cab, and on the ride home to Brooklyn, I started thinking about why that had been such a good time. The simple truth is that proper first dates — ones not facilitated by algorithms and/or copious amounts of alcohol — are a rarity these days, especially among millennials, and especially in cities like New York. We spend hours swiping through profiles, judging people in a split-second — and, in the case of me and many of my girlfriends, rejecting around 80% of the people we see. The ones you do decide to talk to? There's still a good chance it'll never go anywhere.
Would I have swiped right on Kenny on Bumble? Maybe not. Maybe I would have, and he'd never respond to my message, or the convo would fizzle out before we'd ever make plans to meet up. Or would I have hit it off with Kenny in a dim, noisy bar in the East Village on a Saturday night? Would he have introduced himself to me? Would I have given him my number, or told him I had to find my friend and peace out?
First Dates is a good show because it gives people like me (and very much not like me) opportunities to set aside all those what-ifs and stop frantically swiping for the next best thing. It reminds dating-weary viewers that it doesn't have to be all that complicated to sit down with a person and get to know them — and that, rare horror stories aside, the worst thing that can happen is you don't hit it off. It's about two people giving each other their undivided attention in a distraction-filled world; a fair shot instead of a snap judgment. And while the one-on-one dinner date might seem, well, boring, it actually allows for real conversation without the shiny optics of The Bachelor to distract and deflect. It's a hell of a lot more naturalistic a portrayal of dating than, say, 10-on-1 group dates or skydiving with a virtual stranger (hey, Nick and Vanessa), and that's something audiences can appreciate.
I'm glad I gave First Dates a chance — and I'm glad we have a show like this on TV today, because I think we need it. I might start swiping right a little more, biting the bullet and getting drinks with my matches whether I think they're Mr. Right or not, and trying to be more open to meeting people when I'm out. Kenny and I have been texting a little, by the way, and we're going to get dinner this weekend. This time, I'll choose the place.