“Dates” mines the romantic date and comes up short

A man in an uncomfortable-looking tie waits alone in a restaurant at a table for two while his date, observing him from nearby, does not like what she sees and leaves. The woman eventually returns, a little haughty, and sits for dinner with the man, having a lovely conversation. They’re a mismatch physically — she is a lithe beauty while he is stout and rather scruffy — but there’s obvious chemistry between them. Eventually the woman makes an excuse for an escape, looking more shaken than haughty this time.

So went the first episode of Dates, the romantic drama from Skins creator Bryan Elsley. The show purports to explore the myriad of possibilities for a first date, and true to its premise, each episode features a different date: The above-mentioned episode  features Mia (Oona Chaplin) and David (Will Mellor), while subsequent episodes feature different protagonists — all on first dates.

It’s somewhat of an anthology, as Dates splits its narrative among a few protagonists. Other than Mia and David, there is the closeted lesbian Erica (Gemma Chan), the shy librarian Jenny (Sheridan Smith), and the divorced surgeon Stephen (Ben Chaplin), the latter whom Mia meets in a later date.

Interestingly enough, the women in Dates are at the epicentre of the narrative. Erica is afraid to come out to her family; Jenny wants to rebuild her confidence after her failed relationship; Mia has a deep-seated insecurity. Their dates, it turns out, are their antidote for them to confront their problems, their satellites from which they derive their place in the universe.

Ultimately, Dates dooms itself with its premise. Its structure of having each episode focus on a date severely limits the characterisation of its flimsy characters. Characters are reduced to exposition through dialogue, and they never seem to progress beyond their tropes: Erica never rises above being the closeted lesbian, while Jenny never becomes more than the confidence-shorn woman. Their dates are worse off, as they never seem to progress beyond mere adjectives: the secretly homosexual man, the serial philanderer, the brash slob, or the mature young student.

I really wanted to like Dates. The best moments are the episodes penned by Elsey — the above-mentioned “David and Mia” and “Stephen and Mia”, the latter focusing on Stephen’s slow dance of passion with a stranger he meets by chance. They share a common propensity to lurch towards the unpredictable, forcing its audience to focus on the sparks between the would-be couple.  In these episodes, I get what Elsey is trying to bring across with this show — a date is whatever its participants make of it, and whatever happens is something nobody can predict.

It’s a pity that the rest of the episodes fail to execute that premise. There’s a decent ensemble of acting talent and those episodes hit all their required beats, but the characters in them never become people, and the narratives in them never become engaging stories. Dates may have made a great first impression, but it’s not a keeper.

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