“This is no ordinary restaurant.” If you’ve ever clicked on a hotel TV tuned to Channel 4 while visiting the UK over the last couple years, you’ve probably heard these words. They kick off an incredibly enjoyable hour of observation. An “interactive documentary series” in which you watch regular Britons meeting, chatting and flirting over dinner—interspersed with on-camera confessions of romantic hopes and fears. The at-home (or at-hotel) viewer is a fly on the wall spying on two vulnerable strangers as they tentatively test each other out, usually with the best of intentions, in hopes of finding an intimate partner. Sincere as a heart attack, addictive as chocolate, light as a feather, First Dates is a well-meaning joy.
The show, now in its seventh season, premiered in the summer of 2013 as the least prurient, most heartwarming offering in a wave of recent Brit dating reality shows. (For those wondering, the most prurient/least heartwarming would probably be the more recent Naked Attraction. Yes, it’s exactly what you think. They’re all naked; it would never air in America.) The First Dates restaurant staff manages their nervous would-be lovers with grace. Handsome, bearded maitre d' Fred Sirieix dispenses fortune-cookie-level wisdom you’d normally roll your eyes at—but the man is to Love what Yoda was to The Force. He makes grand statements like “A love that can last forever takes but a second to come about” or “Every story has an end, but in love every ending is a new beginning,” and you just know, deep down, that it’s true. There’s also friendly barman Merlin Griffiths who offers drinks, usually with some manly reassurance about their appearance to whichever dater arrives first. Plus, there are the adorable waiters and waitresses who make fun-but-never-cruel comments about the couples’ spark, or lack thereof.
Truth be told, I want a part-time job at the First Dates restaurant. I’d happily be their busboy and collect dirty dishes just to get a glimpse of it all first-hand. They get paid just to spy on people and critique the modern-day mating dances. What could be better? (“Isn’t that sort of what you’re doing right now? Just now as you’re writing this?” a friend asks. It’s a fair point.)
For the American tourist, First Date isn’t just entertainment; it’s a sociological education—a survey of today’s Britain. You take in all the different accents, styles and sensibilities of the very diverse residents of the United Kingdom. The show, thankfully, often provides some kind of geographical information about their guests. Identifying epithets like Oxford-educated so-and-so, Brummy-born Jane, John from Leicester and so on. A nervous lass makes a self-deprecating joke about how her tight dress marks her as a real Essex girl and it all comes together: the stereotype, her accent and her humor form an impression and you know just a little more about a place, its reputation and its people. Plus, the show always supplies professions. Players become representatives of their class as well as their homes: A very useful primer, particularly for Americans who need all the help they can navigating and deciphering the subtleties of the British class system.
Yet there’s something all of them—from the posh London-born bankers to the funny Surrey girls—seem to share. Some baseline traits that slowly filter down to the American viewer after a few (or perhaps ten) episodes of playful banter and poignantly awkward meals. There’s an inscrutable Brit tone—more vulnerable and less at the same time, more direct yet also more polite—or just more agreeable, perhaps. Is it as simple as that? It’s hard to describe. They all share a certain…level—just a bit off from the one Americans are on. Is it just the effort they put in—that they’re all (mostly) trying to act well? Maybe it’s an illusion or a projection, but some ineffable Britishness just seems to shine through.
Better than all of that, when people click, it’s magic: Two lonely souls find each other, especially the vulnerable ones, and they both say, “Yes, I’d like to see you again!” But even when it doesn’t work, they almost always seem to treat each other with respect and kindness, well-wishes and hopes—which is kind of the spirit of the show itself. Even with the occasional drunken boor, there’s a dignity in this search for “The One”. And though the Brits themselves might be falling just a bit out of love with First Dates—the once-impressive ratings have slipped a bit—for a newbie American with fresh eyes, it’s love at first viewing.