Here is Denai, a 28-year-old woman, a radio DJ, talking about dating: “When I meet him I want to light up inside and I want my heart to explode. When I meet that someone, I want to love them to death.” Oh lordy. Such expectations.
First Dates (Tuesdays, Slice, 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.) features Denai, among many others. It’s a wonderful, original Canadian reality series, utterly beguiling and utterly lacking in the tackiness and sleaze that are part of so many series about finding love.
Each episode is set in a restaurant of singles in Vancouver, people who have been paired up for a real first dinner date with someone they’ve never met. The restaurant is fitted with more than 30 fixed cameras that record everything from bumbling talk to fumbling attempts at flirtation. There are no producers swooping in with cameras to stage and restage dramatic moments. It’s an old-school, fly-on-the-wall chronicle of people meeting people, often artlessly. But it has heart, this show.
Each episode features a small number of couples. We are introduced to each at the beginning and, at the end, the pairs sit down together to briefly summarize the experience. And then, in what is truly worth waiting for, we find out if a second date, or anything more, happened. It is all done with an aching gentleness and goodwill. It never feels exploitative but, of course, there are some people for whom reality TV is a natural arena. Ego and vanity arise. There’s that, but it’s not all of it.
Denai is a fascinating figure. She doesn’t just have big expectations. She’s blunt. Paired with a 28-year-old Englishman who has never had a stable relationship, Denai gushes at the guy. “You have an accent! You are so supercute!” Things progress. The chap gets cocky. He declares, “I’m wearing my lucky boxers.” Then he shows her the boxers. Yes. In the restaurant. On a first date.
Later the cameras capture Denai in the washroom, calling a girlfriend to tell her about the date. Mainly, she talks about the guy’s looks, his abs and arm muscles. Back at the table, after some banter, she eventually says to him, “You’re such a dick.” Where is this thing going with these superficial people? You might be surprised.
Then there is Charles, an HR guy who describes himself as “quicksand” because, you see, the ladies sink into him. He tells his date, Billi-Ann, that when he parties, he likes to “push it.” Charles then tries to get his date massively drunk. The look on her face, throughout, is indescribable. Charles, at 35, hasn’t really outgrown his frat-boy self.
A yoga instructor named Raphael, a handsome dude at 37, meets his date, Tina. She’s 29 and training to be a psychologist. She says she wants to meet a man who does something to her stomach. Makes it wobble or something. Things go swimmingly until the subject of having children comes up. Uh oh.
While some of this small-scale drama might seem mundane, there are moments of transcendent sweetness. A 33-year-old security officer named Johnny is on his first date in years. He’s terribly nervous and a bit intense. Your heart breaks for him, but his date, Alexa, sees something in Johnny that his nervousness is hiding. They talk about favourite TV shows and we watch these very nice people warm to each other.
A date between two guys, Sean and Yogi, is stand-up-and-cheer stuff. Sean is bookish, a bit shy, and says, “The ideal man is someone who shows up for the date.” Yogi has few filters but an uproarious chat about shoes takes off onto another plane of understanding and empathy. It’s adorable and the ending to their story is so, so charming.
Put away your bias about reality TV. Put away your skepticism about dating shows. Sometimes, even reality TV can take us to a special place of insight and warmth, and First Dates does it with aplomb.
All times ET. Check local listings.