deep dives

A Deep Dive Into 'First Dates', the Greatest Show on British Television

Or: are first dates the worst social ritual of all time?

by Joel Golby
08 November 2017, 9:43am

(All images via Channel 4)

1. Take the knuckle of your first finger and dig it into the small gap between your collar bones. Feel that? Bump, soft, bump. That's where we start the incision. With a pair of shears, slice right down the front of your body – down through the rib cage, the soft skin at the top of the belly, down through the abdomen and stopping at your junk. Peel open both sides and pin them to the rocks beneath you. Now we can see everything: your meaty heart, pounding away. Pink lungs expand and contract. Beneath your diaphragm, the start of the intestinal tract, squirming and squishy, glistening in the raw light. Bones and organs and gristle and white-yellow walls of fat. All of you. But also, super-imposed over the top, another layer: all the traumas you've felt, all your fears and heartaches, all your ambitions, all your tender little hopes. "I want kids one day, but it needs to be with the right person," you say. You say: "My parents divorced when I was ten and it has always affected my idea of love." Peel yourself open and let someone you matched with on Tinder peer inside. Expose the most tender parts of your psyche to some guy who used to bang your friend before she met her fiancé and the two of you met at her engagement party recently and sort of got on so yeah, let's meet up. Take a few hours out of your day to flay yourself open in front of a stranger. "Please," you say, "fuck me and love me and marry me forever." And the stranger – this is all happening in a restaurant, by the way, this whole thing is happening over a steak special – the stranger says: yeah I like you and that, but I think we should just be friends.

This week we're watching First Dates.

2. First Dates is a TV show where people go on first dates. The TV categories it falls into are "mild" and "heartwarming". There is slim-to-no conflict in the safe bubble of the First Dates restaurant. Nobody ever gets swirled with wine or called a cunt. This is because of the tender, careful laws that govern the etiquette of any given restaurant first date: two animals, padding around each other in a circle, gently enquiring about family and previous relationships, asking So Why Are You Single Then, complimenting each other's eyes, slowly weighing up whether they can spend the rest of their lives watching the person opposite chewing. And there are invisible boundaries of politeness enclosing all of this – do not get too drunk, on the first date; one person pays for dinner while the other one thanks them; don't demean the other person's job or hobby; don't overtly tell them you're not attracted to them; do not cough, do not chew with your mouth open, do not eat with your hands. Anyone straying outside of these lines of behaviour is immediately flagged up as manic. Essentially: First Dates is a TV show which balances people's precariously beating hearts with their baked-in English need to not be rude to a stranger. As such, it is compelling TV.

So each hour sees something like five couples meet for the first time and decide if they want to love the other person forever or, like, not. Here are your couples: one lively newly-divorced pensioner who still has enough energy to fuck, and who has been paired with a very tired 72-year-old businessman who pays for dinner but doesn't want a drink afterwards. One gay couple, a single member of which has been savagely damaged by a significant relationship before them. Two 28-year-old London professionals who describe themselves as "a bit nerdy, a little bit geeky" and who "tried [dating], tried [all the apps], but deleted them after a week! Wow!" A receptionist from Kent and a City Boy from Essex who will absolutely slam and then never meet again. A guy who loves his kids and who spends his date telling the woman opposite how much he loves his kids. "My kid was saying," the guy who loves his kids says, "my kid was saying the other day: daddy, why don't you have a girlfriend?!" and his date smiles, into her white wine. She came for chicken wrapped in bacon and left with the offer of being someone else's mum. Second date: unlikely.

3. Eighty-thousand people want to be on this show, according to producer Nicola Lloyd, in this podcast about First Dates that I actually listened to as well as watching countless episodes. Eighty-thousand people. Additional facts: when guests clam up on dates, a good trick producers do is fake a mic test and then give them a little pep talk while they are messing with their battery packs. Additional facts: the reason everyone goes to the toilet to call their mum halfway through a date is because they are encouraged to, and actually you suddenly learn the importance of a half-time break during a date, that maybe next time you're out with someone new just go and pretend to be busy for ten or 15, take the pressure off. Additional fact: matchmakers keep meticulous files on everyone who applies and conscientiously matches them up based on likes, and dislikes, and where they live. This is the science that works. When you watch First Dates, every single moment of connection is literally built on these three pillars: what they like (they like the same thing: family, for instance, or poetry, or history), dislikes (they dislike the same thing: non-committal exes, for instance, or death, or people who talk over them) and they share some similar geography ("You're from Stoke? I am from Stoke too!"). We think of love as a complex and unknowable thing, a strange and rare alchemy, flakes of gold floating through the air that only a few of us are lucky enough to ever catch on our tongues. Maître d' Fred tells us in yearning French tones that love is beautiful, ethereal, a rare gem, a treat. No. It is honestly just liking some things and living near each other. I saw two people fall in love on this show because both their dads were from Scotland.

4. That First Dates has become a genuinely viable dating avenue for people I suppose says a lot about the state of modern love as a whole – a lot of people will complain about apps, before their date, how Apps Are Bad and They Don't Like Apps but Everyone Is On Apps – but then app aversion sort of makes sense when you realise a lot of people's main motivations for being on the show are relatively serious (people come on First Dates ostensibly for a romantic relationship, and not just to get fingered in an SE-postcode Spoons before getting an Uber home about it) and don't really get covered by the remit of Tinder shagging, i.e.:

– Massive virgins who have never spoken to another person or been on a date literally ever in their lives who decide to do the aforementioned in front of a crew of 90 people and an audience in the millions, for some reason;
– Yung Professional Daters, who, having exhausted every other avenue of dating, decide to go on this TV show as some sort of exquisite self-banter, because can you imagine the state of the group chat when this one goes out, I mean my god, the savagery;
– Old people who want a second, third or fourth attempt at love because of death or divorce or – for some reason, in a surprisingly high number of these – eschewing their religion after a life under its yoke, which leads to some real newfound-moral-freedom zigs into the unknown, one of which is putting on a fun light scarf and going for a quiet meal with a York-based retiree whose eyes explode open when you lean across the table and whisper "I've read every one of those Fifty Shades books, you know";
– People who could date normally like normal people but have some sort of enormous X Factor-sob story style psychic roadblock that stops them – they tremble and cry slightly and say "sorry" in the green room pre-date as they describe how their dad died, or how they have some sort of unseen but bad chronic health condition, or they had a car accident once, and the music slows to a quiet twinkling piano and they go "… and it's made it hard", as they go "… to meet people", and then, sure as clockwork, they bring it out on their date between the starter and the main course, slow the conversation down and go, "So, I should probably tell you now… I'm a v-very a-anxious person";
– People in their mid-thirties who have exactly one failed engagement behind them and so are now convinced that this – going on Channel 4 and eating a set menu with a stranger – is their Last And Final Chance At Love And Any Failure From This Point On Will Undoubtedly Lead To Dying Alone;

5. So all in all it's actually sometimes quite hard to root for these people to bone, because there is often an almost visible sense of desperation about them, and everything is just so obvious – every time a bloke clatters to his feet to pull a chair out, or throws a two-seconds-too-late physical compliment into the ether ("I— you've got, um. You've got a nice figure!"), or sweats and offers to pay the bill; every time conversation falls slightly between two people who fancy each other and one of them says "you've got nice eyes", the only chat-up line anyone in the UK apparently knows; every time you see someone try to shift the balance of the entire date in their favour, as if slamming all the buttons on a fruit machine and hoping they light up in a jackpot order – it's like they've forgotten, briefly, entirely how to be human. There is truly something actually horrible about watching people on a first date. I hate it with my life.

6. The glue that keeps this whole thing together, then, is French maître d' Fred, an array of dazzlingly attractive wait staff and cheerful-but-a-bit-Addams-Family-too barman Merlin. I mention Fred being French because he is the most French man alive, and only somehow seems to be getting more French as the series go by, accelerating into deep Frenchness like a camembert rolling down a hill: the end point of Fred being French is somewhere in the next five years, where he will be rendered incapable of communicating in anything other than faint gallic shrugs. Fred is the only man alive capable of getting away with a sincere "oh, la la!", which he uses indiscriminately, yelled at Amazonian bodycon girls who drink straight vodka and are single because "I just love dickheads", or at glamorous nans tottering into the restaurant to have one of those dates that always, for some reason, ends with them doing some mid-restaurant ballroom dancing while Fred claps gamely along. "Love," Fred purrs, sparklingly, his perfect blue eyes twinkling in the soft light of an empty restaurant, "love is [some inane shit about love that he just googled]", and it sets the tone, somehow: you believe him when he says love is magical, and real, that love is flawed and requires both give and take. You must listen, Fred says, or some shit, listen to love. Or: love will often find you, Fred says, when you least suspect it. And you, alone on your sofa, nobody to hold and nobody to love you, you nod along, don't you. You are the oracle, Fred. I would lay down my entire fucking life for you, you beautiful French bastard.

7.

THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN EVERY EPISODE OF FIRST DATES, WITHOUT FAIL

A 22-year-old and a 25-year-old have a fucking shot of tequila with their dinner like sociopaths. A nervous lad who works in IT or some sort of enthusiastic rock fan from Peterborough will turn up wearing a T-shirt. Someone will admit that they have "never had a proper date before" or "never actually been, you know, in a relationship". First date banter as best I can tell is just this: identifying a common thing that someone has never done before and berating them for it ("You've never had prosecco? Really?"). Saying "so how was your journey in?" as the opening gambit, which I can tell you right now is an instant death knell, nobody has ever got horny describing their train diversion. Saying "so did you enjoy the meal?" as you sadly guide someone out to a taxi. Someone is called back for a "second chance at love" because they were too fucking weird for it last time. Using hand gestures and crinkled eyes, two people in their sixties say how they are happy but "feel there's a piece missing" and "just want some… companionship". There's a bit where the music slows down and someone recounts in obtuse terms some deep horror that happened at the end of their last relationship, that you realise the true extent of human misery, that we tear anyone willing to be intimate with us down to the fragile tissue and then just leave them out there, fully exposed. Take a shot if a widow softly cries. A couple in their mid-thirties yam steak into their mouths while talking about family units and then say "Yeah I just… I just want that." Someone will, nailed on, ask this question: "So… any brothers or sisters?" Someone will talk for ages about how their mum or their dad is their hero. Long-time single men will cheerfully sit on a stool and say, "Yeah I've got a lot going for me… I've got a job," then look into middle distance and realise that's it: that is the start and end of what they have going for them. One of the impossibly attractive waiters or waitresses will jokily pretend to fancy someone 20 years senior to them. Someone will perform some sort of etiquette booboo so gigantic you wonder how anyone has sex, really: we cannot remember each other's names, we cannot stop chewing with our mouth open, we cannot stop having a glass of wine too many and regurgitating our opinions about how feminism isn't real. How does anyone ever fuck? How does anyone, ever, fuck? Someone, in the year of our lord 2017, will be audibly impressed by a melting chocolate bombe dessert.

8. The magic of First Dates, then, scattered in among the awkward wonkiness of nervous daters and the two-park-benches-creaking-against-each-other-in-the-wind chemistry void of some of the dates, and in among the I'd-see-them-again-just-as-friends and the old people puffing umbrellas up separately and parting with brisk goodbyes, in among all that, the whole point of First Dates are those surprisingly common moments of magic when the stars align and everything clicks and yes, actually, you do see a good first date, a little green shoot of hope down among the dark soil. It is impossible to watch this show and not start genuinely rooting for these people to find some glimmer of happiness to cling to. Is there anything as heartwarming on TV as watching two people, giddily drunk on a combination of wine and butterflies, smirking to camera and too afraid to make eye contact, sheepishly admitting that yes, they'd like to see each other for a second date? No.

And conversely, is there anything as pull-your-soul-out as watching a couple who you were sure were a good thing, absolutely sure, you're waiting for the end card with a selfie of them kissing, the end card that says "After Their Date, Ben and Keith Have Been Dating For Three Months" or something, something to make your heart soar, "Sean and Lucy Are Expecting A First Dates Baby" or some shit, and then they turn to each other, and the gooey eyes suddenly dissipate, and no, they say, no I didn't think there was really that spark, and suddenly now all hope is gone from you?

The great scam of this entire show is that it is mild, and light, and heartwarming, when really it is savage: out there is a sexual battlefield, and it's impossible to run from one side to another without having at least one limb shot off. It is kill or be killed. Not even in the perfect conditions can love always blossom. There is no hope for you, or hope for anyone. It doesn't matter who you are: you are destined at some point to be binned off. Love isn't real, First Dates is a scam, every conversation about who pays the bill is fake because the set menu costs £25 each and production gives them a voucher that covers it entirely. "Love," Fred says, at the end of every episode, as the lights fade down and staff in waistcoats brush down tables, "love is all around us." Then two people with no chemistry get into separate taxis and you think: hold on, a minute. You think: hold on, I am destined to die alone. We all are.

@joelgolby