In the dating show genre, First Dates strikes an old-fashioned, fully clothed note. While Love Island does it in bikinis and Naked Attraction in the nip, First Dates eschews swipe-left swiftness. Instead, Channel 4’s hit painstakingly matches according to interests, geographical proximity and preferences for a large or small bum.
Even after 11 series, participants feign surprise at being paired with a fellow Bristolian or a Star Wars fan with a massive arse. What are the chances! Obviously, First Dates is somewhat contrived but its charm lies in the suspension of disbelief. Modern dating is ruinous, yet still people live in hope of finding The One over a three-course lunch in a fancy London restaurant. This makes for frequently hilarious, heartwarming television.
At the First Dates restaurant, presided over by French fancy and maître d’ Fred, diners bare all emotionally. Baggage is unceremoniously dumped on the table before starters are served. Datees declare their least desirable assets, and if it’s still a match after all that, viewers can expect to get as gooey as a chocolate bomb dessert.
Plenty of idiots waltz through the First Dates door but it’s the triumphs we remember. Like Louisa, crap at dating but brilliant at dressing up as Exeter Cathedral for Halloween. Or Lauren, whose problem was being permanently friend-zoned. Producers paired the latter with Pat, part of her pre-existing friendship group, who went on to … friend-zone her. Still, Lauren was as heroically funny about the date’s outcome as she was the cancer she was in recovery from at the time.
Despite so many great characters – survivors of life’s slings and arrows – First Dates decided to spoil it all by engineering some of its own. In series three, new waiting staff CiCi and Sam began acting like more than just two jobbing actors on a dating reality show. Friendly bants turned to obvious flirting. Closeup shots framed Sam looking lovelorn as the camera cut to CiCi serving cod and triple-cooked chips.
Point firmly made about potential love action, obstacles were hastily put in the way. CiCi started dating someone. Sam stepped into the breach when a diner’s date didn’t turn up. Then he went on another date with another woman and CiCi did not look best-pleased. CiCi left work early to go on a fresh date (closeup of Sam looking sad etc, etc). They even did a Love Actually parody together for those who’d still not cottoned on.
And then … nothing. After the buildup, the show disappeared CiCi and Sam’s would-be romance. Now they just serve T-bone steak, have no lives beyond waiting tables and rarely appear in the same shot together.
First Dates keeps shooting Cupid’s arrow, but the show missed the mark when it decided on a staff romance. The move highlighted the constructed elements of the show as it crowbarred in updates on CiCi’s romantic status. Not seeing this fairytale through burst the series’ romantic bubble. And with a story that vanished, First Dates’ audience got a taste of a very modern dating phenomenon. We got ghosted.