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Think blind dates couldn’t get any worse? Try this

Think blind dates couldn’t get any worse? Try this

In “UpDating”, a stage show in New York, singletons meet each other in front of a live audience. Alice Fulwood takes a seat

 

In “UpDating”, a stage show in New York, singletons meet each other in front of a live audience. Alice Fulwood takes a seat

 

Alice Fulwood | July 2nd 2019

I am trying to decide if the two strangers I am watching on a blind date are into each other. There is no denying they look good together. Nick, who works in a sewage treatment plant, is tall and charming with broad shoulders and a thick “New Joi-see” accent. Bri is slim and blonde with a dry wit, a southern drawl and a job in sales for a large tech company. He seems interested; she is harder to read. Their audience is deeply invested in the fate of their relationship, exhibiting a prurient curiosity that reality-television executives have exploited for the last 30 years. But this date is not being captured on camera. Nick and Bri are live on stage, just a few feet away from their audience, in the basement of a swanky New York hotel.

Since the advent of reality TV, dating shows have let viewers indulge their curiosity about other people’s love lives by giving them a front-row seat to the action. Such shows have proved enormously popular. “The Bachelor”, in which single women vie for the affections of a chiselled Adonis, garnered the second-largest live television when it aired in America this year. In 2018 the finale of the fourth season of “Love Island”, a British show which locks ten gym-honed fitties in a Spanish villa for eight weeks, drip-feeding them romantic rivals every few days, was the second most-watched hour of television on ITV, one of Britain’s prime television channels – only the World Cup was more popular. But many viewers have grown wise to the way that producers script, structure and edit these shows. They argue that there is nothing “real” about reality TV.

That’s where Nick and Bri come in. That night, they were the stars of “UpDating”, a new kind of dating show, that dispenses altogether with scripting, structuring and editing. The idea came to Brandon Berman, a goofy would-be standup comedian, one day in 2017, when he came across Harrison Forman’s Instagram account. Forman had taken to posting Instagram Stories before, during and after dates he ventured on (having, he is quick to assure me, procured the consent of the girl in question). The mid-date dispatch, or “half-time report” as he calls it, was particularly popular: he would solicit opinions from his followers on whether his navy jumper suited him, and fret about faltering small-talk. It struck Berman that people might pay to watch two singletons going on a date, and delivering their own half-time reports, live on stage. The pair launched the show late last year. It has been a resounding success. “UpDating” routinely sells out (tickets are $15), with Time Out describing it as one of the best things to do in New York. 

The night I went the room was packed; a febrile atmosphere filled the room. Berman interviews the daters in turn, and Bri is up first. Berman asks her about her background and interests before posing the question he asks everyone who dares appear on the show: “why did you want to do this?” She complains about the lamentable New York dating scene, the monotony of “the apps”, and sums up her motivation with a light-hearted shrug: “I guess I just figured... why not?”

Then she is hustled off stage after putting on noise-cancelling headphones and a blindfold. Time to meet her two potential suitors. First up is a laid-back ladies man called Sober (who appears to be anything but) who works in advertising. Initially he seems likeable enough, but then Berman asks him what he finds unattractive in a date. His response – “girls that don’t wax” – nettles the ladies. We also meet Nick who, with his slicked-back hair and easy charm, reminds me of a New Jersey Danny from “Grease”. He manages to avoid ramming his foot in his mouth in quite as dramatic a fashion. When we are instructed to vote for the man we want to be paired with Bri, using a link on the “UpDating” Instagram page, it is a no-brainer: the majority (including me) pick Nick. 

Their blindfolds are whipped off simultaneously. They chat amicably about where they grew up and what jobs they do as my fellow voyeurs and I assess their body language for clues about whether they are attracted to each other. The evening begins to descend into debauchery when Nick poses the innocent-seeming question, “Are you close with your family?” When Bri says yes, he says, “That’s good – girls that aren’t close with their family do too much butt stuff,” prompting gasps from the women and guffaws from the men.

An awkward silence ensues. Berman seizes the opportunity to pose uncomfortable questions which audience members have sent via Instagram. The date turns on one question for Bri: “Have you ever dated a blue-collar worker before?” The audience is rapt as she confesses she doesn’t know what the term means. The crowd hisses. A couple of minutes later we are asked if we would like to replace Nick or Bri with another singleton. We dump Bri, whose face crumples. Michaela, a slender brunette sitting in the the front row who had messaged to say she liked the look of Nick via Instagram, takes her place. 

It is brutal to watch, and made me think UpDating should come with a disclaimer: “Warning: some millennials were harmed in the making of this show.” The night continues in this fashion: we take a liking to Michaela, who is bubbly and sweet, but sour on Nick, as his initial charm turns sleazy and brash. He is ditched for an audience member called Sam, but his undoing comes seconds after he takes the stage when Berman asks, “So what did you like about Michaela?” to which he quips, “You mean apart from the fact that she isn’t wearing a bra?” She reddens and recoils. Moments later Berman checks the stream of Instagram messages pouring in and says, chuckling, “A lot of people have, er, very negative thoughts about Sam.” We dispose of him immediately. Somebody in the crowd suddenly yells “bring back Sober!” It is a marker of how far and fast our standards have fallen that the audience, drunk on mediocre rosé and the rush of dispensing swift and rough justice, begin to chant his name. We are a pack of vigilantes dispatched to rid Gotham of fuckboys.

Michaela and Sober chat briefly before Berman interrupts to inform us that, somewhat to my relief, our time is up. Before we go, we vote one last time, to determine whether Michaela and Sober should 1) never see each other again, 2) slide into each others’ DMs or 3) make out on stage. Disregarding the fact that they have barely spoken to each other, we vote for a kiss. But they refuse and the spell of collective mob-rule is broken. 

As ebullient audience members eagerly dissect what they have witnessed, a show that is equal measures “Lord of the Flies” and “Pride and Prejudice”, I try to engage the contestants in polite pillow talk. I cannot find Bri, who has vanished, tail between her legs. Michaela is shell-shocked and a little upset. Predictably, the men have fared better. Nick, surrounded by women, seems cheerful enough. “It was fun. My sister signed me up, and she came to support me.” (What did she make of his theory about “butt stuff”?) Irritatingly, given how widely he was loathed, Sam is making out with an inebriated woman.

“UpDating” drew out the crassness in its contestants (especially the men) and transformed the audience into crude, judgmental boors. But then again, most reality-TV dating programmes do that. Where “UpDating” differs is in its rawness. Audience members see all the lulls in the conversation, as well as the more entertaining bits. Its portrayal of dating, warts and all, is far more accurate. I leave the hotel feeling both soiled and exhilarated. I can’t wait to watch it again.