If you pay close enough attention you will notice that there are only three types of dating show: “laughs”, “influence” and “genuinely wanting romance”. The first category, laughs, barely counts: participants on these one-episode dating shows are rarely in it for anything other than a story, ironically enough to use as a conversation starter on subsequent, untelevised dates – “An interesting fact about me? Oh, uh: my episode of Dinner Date is still available on ITV Hub for the next 19 days”, “Ah, yeah? I got sent home after the penis round on Naked Attraction”. Second is the blockbuster dating format, where everyone entering a villa half-hopes not for love but for a significant uptick in Instagram followers and the offer to open a shop in a local mall for a head-spinning amount of cash. These shows litter our screens in the summer months – a Love Island, an Ex on the Beach, a Ready to Mingle. (Play the game right and you can enter the Love Island villa at the start of the summer and leave the Celebs Go Dating villa at the end of the following winter.)
Then you get what Channel 4 excels in: taking people who are 30 or almost 30 or a bit past 30, and all emotionally damaged by something in their romantic history, and throwing them into a speculative dating show that, if sociologists enacted it in the 60s, we’d be talking about now in the hushed tones we use when we mention the Stanford prison experiment. Anyway: welcome to The Language of Love (Channel 4, Tuesday, 10pm).
It is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds: six lovelorn Brits do their little pre-roll interviews saying they’ve tried everything and they just can’t find the missing piece, all they want is love, and they’re willing to travel to the Costa del Sol to find it, and blah blah blah blah blah. Then they get on a rickety coach and exchange tentative banter with each other (lads blasting the question “OI, WHAT’S YOUR TYPE?” at each other like a football) as it winds up a hill. Then Davina McCall pops out, the pedigree presenter to end all other presenters, and tells them: you’ve all tried everything, you all failed to find the missing piece, you all want love and, guess what, today you’re going to find it. But guess what guess what: none of the sexy singles we’re going to introduce you to can speak English, and none of you can speak Spanish. You have to negotiate heavy petting with the same staccato elan you use to order an omelette at a Tenerife hotel.
Channel 4 more than any British channel understands the need to fill January, the most miserable of months, with a captivatingly absurd dating show. This is how they got me hooked on Married at First Sight: Australia last year. (What else was I going to do? I’d spent all my Christmas money and I wasn’t drinking.) The Language of Love seems similarly primed for an audience of people who can’t legally leave the house for whatever reason. As a result, I’m already resigned to watching it to the bitter end. After the initial group meetings between the Spanish boys and the British girls, you think: “How fun can this be, really? They keep misunderstanding each other. Nobody knows how to count. This is stupid.” Then, a banquet-style paella meal and some sangria jugs later, and the electric crackle of human chemistry is somehow overriding the language barrier, and you’re engrossed.
Kimey, a medical student, is infatuated with Akonne, a surprisingly sweethearted Brummie MMA fighter. Tracy and Thalia are squabbling over the same hotel worker. The whole thing seems to be filmed on the exact same hardware they use for the grainy interior shots of First Dates Hotel, so you keep expecting Fred to turn up. Instead, as Davina and co-host Ricky Merino watch from a distant balcony, you actually spy something darker and more primal: the inherent human impulse to try to get off with someone even if you can’t confidently tell them where the library is. It doesn’t make sense that this show is as good as it is, but then it doesn’t make sense that any human would spend a fortnight trying to forge a horny lingua franca just because Davina McCall told them to, and yet here we are. This is what your January looks like. Staring into the abyss of the human condition and seeing just how deep it can go.