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First Dates: Funny Kind of “Reality”

2015 March 7
by Zoe Strimpel
Electric? No, this is staged lust, with the makeup to prove it.

Electric? No, this is staged lust, with the makeup to prove it.

I always wonder how “reality” tv can possibly be “reality” when the presence of cameras and audience is known, producers have made you up within an inch of your life and you’ve got a mic hanging from your neck. Big Brother is simply bizarre. Aren’t they all doing it because they’re on camera? So it’s not really “reality” TV, but “reality with a camera and massive audience” TV. Which isn’t the same.

In the “reality” setting, I can imagine being filmed perusing wildlife or property. But performing first-date emotion, partaking in the curious power ping pong and evaluative poker-facery that goes hand in hand with sizing up a mate over unwanted food? That’s the mystery behind Channel 4’s First Dates, whose third season premiered last night. It’s billed as though we’re really watching what first dates are like – something that TV critics seem to find “beautiful” and “excruciating”. But they’ve not been out on the dating block for a while. Because then they’d know that first dates without cameras and national audience are quite a lot different from first dates with them. Snippets of overdetermined camera-awareness, like the slow eating of olives by the much-hyped Frankie, are rife. For instance, she does that thing where women bite the olive from the toothpick in a way that it sits right in the centre of her tongue, about halfway up, so her whole mouth is open before she closes her lips around it. It’s like a pre-blow job mouth enclosing that olive. Nobody does that in REAL reality.

Which is why I find it odd to read articles in Radio Times, the Guardian, The Mirror and Metro today following last night’s show that eulogize the authenticity and therefore the fascination of the dates. Frankie and Mouhala, in particular, are widely agreed to have cataclysmic sexual energy. Frankie giggled and sucked olives; made comments about taking off her clothes. She said she liked to eat chocolate and therefore she liked to date chocolate (eg black men).  Mouhala did this terrible grin-fake-bashful thing and went into the bathroom to talk to a female friend on the phone, describing Frankie’s big boobs. Erm – it looked to me like two porn stars limbering up for a paid gig scheduled long ago, not two people with genuine sexual energy…

After the show I googled it and found that an editor I’ve worked with in the past, Rosie Mullender at Cosmo, actually appeared on the show. There was quite a touching account from both her and her date on the Cosmo website that implied it was enjoyable. The cameras was noticed but seemed not to have been the main event. Maybe there is a kind of reality that can take place, then, in the full glare of self-conscious performativity. Some people don’t seem phased by it. For me, though, reality kicks in when the cameras go and nobody’s watching, at all.


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