Getting off on TV dating shows

Take Me Out might be good fun on a Saturday night but The Undateables is the one you’d want to take home with you.

David Bowden

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Love is in the air, as the song goes. There’s plenty of it on the air, too. Perhaps it’s because spring has arrived. ‘April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go’, said American journalist Christopher Morley. ‘When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root’, as Chaucer had it. Anyway, regardless of whether this has been on the minds of TV schedulers recently, there’s lots of blooming dating programmes on at the minute.

There has, of course, been the ultra-successful ITV dating show, Take Me Out, which has thrived on the kind of kitsch Saturday night TV resurgence of the past decade. There’s really not much of a secret to this show’s success, which broadly offers up a camp and feelgood version of modern dating, largely enjoyed (you suspect) by smug couples on a Saturday evening looking for a mixture of vicarious thrills and gentle reassurance of why they’re not on the market. The old-fashioned air was threatened briefly this year, with a scandal involving a male escort and one-time prostitute ending up on a date together, but even that managed to be quite a sweet conclusion in its own fashion.

BBC3, which was taking time out of its more regular shows such as Help Me I Am In Hell, The Virgin & The Gypsy and How Late It Was, How Late, has attempted to muscle in on the territory recently. The World Series of Dating is actually quite an entertaining conceit, combining the more contemporary fad of speed-dating with a mocking twist on the rise and rise of TV experts: a panel of comedians offering sports-style analysis and commentary on proceedings. It’s actually a rather novel and creative idea by BBC3 standards, although sadly much better in concept than in execution. Perhaps BBC4, once again bafflingly caught in a fight to maintain its funding and improve its level of impact for niche arts programming, could consider its own version with lovelorn librarians offering critical feedback to sleazy scholars: a kind of live-action version of the erudite personal ads you find in the London Review of Books. Then again, maybe not.

Of course, the source of much more controversy has been Channel 4’s new series, The Undateables. Following in the same vein as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and My Transsexual Summer, it takes an intimate look at the lives of a group of social outsiders – in this case, a series of people suffering from severe disabilities who are attempting to find love. Predictably, the provocative title and invasive conceit – lonely people offering up deeply intimate and private moments on screen – has generated a lot of tired outrage which is then undercut by the sensitivity of the presentation.

So, yes, we are greeted with the giggle-inducing spectacle of a man with Tourette’s trying to make seductive small-talk while refraining from calling his date a ‘fucking whore’ or a three-foot midget offering us her fantasies of being swept off her feet by a tall, dark and handsome man. But we are continually encouraged to sympathise with their plight through interviews with our articulate subjects who are, ultimately, going through the same struggles as the rest of us. The boy with Tourette’s, for instance, was also a stand-up comedian who had trouble talking to girls, which is hardly unique. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to sympathise with him than the dickish Jeff Leach, who was given an entire hour on BBC3 recently to whinge about his compulsion to sleep with lots of beautiful women on Confessions of a Sex Addict.

If there’s an exploitative spectacle at work in these kind of programmes, it is often having to endure the preposterous sight of good-looking media types do an inverse Samantha Brick-style dance, pretending to be horrified by the prospect that life can be a little harder for those not blessed with model-looks and expensive media training.

As has been indicated by a disastrous-sounding prank for a new upcoming Channel 4 sketch show on the same theme, I’m Spazticus, this kind of programme-making is rarely entirely benign in its awareness-raising credentials but nor is it straightforward who is being sneered at. In reality, the object of derision, broadly speaking, is the viewer, part of that pitiable and detested group known as the public. As I’ve argued before, you suspect most of Ricky Gervais’s disability-themed comedies – the pilot for a new series, Derek, was shown on Channel 4 last night – are mostly increasingly tired and trite attempts to mock the little people around him (his fans and viewers, mostly) under the cover of pushing the boundaries of taste. Likewise, these awareness-raising programmes contain much of the same prejudices about the people they’re aimed it. Those thick and ignorant slobs who abuse the disabled, hold racist views and mock anyone slightly different from themselves? That’s you, that is.

There’s potentially an important discussion to be had about attitudes towards disability and the apparently alarming rise in assaults on the vulnerable and infirm. Yet the assumption of these kinds of prejudice-busting shows is that the viewer is the one with a problem which needs to be confronted. A rather more daring approach might ask whether this problem exists at all, than to seek to understand to what extent and why. It’s all rather a shame, because The Undateables really is quite a sweet show. It’s just a shame that its premise is so ugly.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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