Netflix is on a roll with reality romance shows, and “Dating Around” deserves to extend the streak. Back for a second season, the series is one of the most engaging reality dating competitions ever devised. It’s Prestige Reality TV, as much a documentary as a contest, borrowing an unusually sleek aesthetic from “Master of None.”
The concept is smart and not easy to execute. Casting does the heavy lifting. One person is set up on five blind dates, each of which starts with drinks, moves to dinner, then often ends with another round. Every episode ends by revealing which of the five people was chosen for a second date. (Kind of like “Date My Mom”?)
Contestants, most of which are in their late twenties and early thirties, take each of their five dates to the same restaurants, wearing the same outfits. The effect is a swirl of conversation that mirrors the swipe culture in which millennials date, seamlessly moving from one option to the next in the blink of an eye. The 30-minute format means each episode is heavily dependent on its star, and in its six installments, Season Two doesn’t really have a boring one. It does, however, have some weird ones. (Episode Two.)
The new season, which premieres Friday, has fewer lulls, although there are some. Having moved from New York City to New Orleans, it’s filmed as gorgeously as the first season, capturing the romance of Bourbon Street and beyond with artful shots of the scenery and softly lit shots of sharp-dressed stars. Reality television’s pace and aesthetic is typically less sensual, making “Dating Around” a stand-out in the genre.
Art and culture critic Camille Paglia has famously lauded “The Real Housewives” franchise. In 2014, Paglia wrote, “I appreciate every snippet—the rapid scene set-ups, dynamic camera work, and crisp editing, with its enchanting glimpses of fine houses and restaurants and its glowing appreciation of beautiful objects, from flowers and tableware to jewelry and couture.”
Her praise is well-deserved. But “Dating Around” doesn’t look like reality TV. It looks like “Master of None,” hip, romantic, purposeful, classy.
It also feels as much like a documentary as it does a reality show (the line can sometimes get thin). The fourth wall remains unbroken, but daters are clearly aware of the cameras and circumstances. In that sense, the show actually catches its millennial contestants in an interesting set-up.
An outing organized by TV producers is probably the only way for anyone to truly experience a blind date anymore. All it takes is a name for people to find a picture, and possibly much more. The show’s pace mirrors the pace of swipe-happy app dating, but it eliminates the variable of screening.
“Dating Around” deliberately pairs up people with different personalities and varying cultural backgrounds, inviting the inevitable tensions that come with that. This season seemed to have fewer fireworks than the first, but there are some interesting moments, like conflict over hunting and immigrant parents and sexuality.
From the aesthetic to the participants, it feels almost like a Vice documentary on millennial dating. it’s different than anything else in the reality dating genre, slower, smoother, less forced. You won’t need to binge it urgently like “Love Is Blind” or “Too Hot To Handle,” but “Dating Around” is easy to get lost in. Hopefully it paves the way for more prestige reality TV.