Darkness gives us the liberty to sometimes become a version of ourselves that we’ve always wanted be. Liberated from our physical insecurities, we become lions, as confident and sure of ourselves as the champion we always knew lurked inside. But perhaps more important than who we think we become, is who other people think we might be. With our judgments unsullied by the prejudices triggered by physical appearances, would true love be easier to realize?
“Dating in the Dark,” a new reality show on ABC, purports to investigate this age old question by rounding up three single guys and three single girls, and then only allowing them to meet one another in the pitch black of a completely light-sealed darkroom. Would a good-looking person actually fall for an ugly one? What would happen when they actually saw one another? Could it still work? And if so, would that cause a rift in the space-time continuum that would destroy the universe?
Following the now well-established reality template, “Dating in the Dark” takes place in a generic mansion that’s decorated like an upscale Holiday Inn. The unimaginatively handsome and utterly forgettable Rossi Moreale, serves as host, and as we’re introduced to our six subjects, we see that he could just as easily be a contestant himself. This is TV, after all, and everybody is attractive. However, the contestants do have physical imperfections, small as they might be, (She has weird ear lobes! He’s shaped like a pear!), so if you’re looking to reject someone based on their appearance, then you’re still in luck.
After a little bit of preparatory gloss in which we’re introduced to the participants, we’re swiftly taken into the darkroom, where all six daters are deposited. Giddy, flirtatious and awkward in the dark, each person launches a charm offensive in the hopes of finding a receptive partner.
These portions of the show— a voyeur’s take on 30 Seconds in the Closet—are by far and away the best moments that the program has to offer. The footage we see, shot with some sort of night-vision camera, flickers in spooky black and white. The contestants are like X-Rays, suggestions of people rather than people themselves. However, instead of conjuring the horror/porn genre that so often employs night-vision cinematography, there’s a goofy, slapstick quality to these passages.
Improvisational, it almost looks like some French experimental film or actor’s screen test. This makes some sense, as whenever we’re on a date we’re really just participating in an audition. In an attempt to be winning, we trot out our best lines and most interesting anecdotes, often devolving into something of an actor. And of course, the people we’re watching chose to be on TV, and are consciously trying to seduce and entertain all of us watching at home.
Sex, of course, and even the mere possibility of it, is entertaining, and although the couples can’t actually see one another, they’re still encouraged to grope one another. The sexual tension is practically palpable. They cop feels and trace one another’s bodies, as pheromones, like a cheap cloud of perfume, choke the room.
Interspersed between the darkroom dates that determine the final couples, are external scenes of the guys and girls gabbing about their various encounters. Leni, a nanny with a porn star body, constructed a visual portrait of her would-be-lover that resembled a virile action movie star, because she could only conceive of being attracted to somebody who looked like that. Similarly, Lindsey, who was smitten when she found out that her guy worked as a pitching coach, made virtues out of necessity. Rigidly holding the idea of his perfection in her mind, she spun anything she learned about him, no matter how creepy, into some redeeming quality.
After the contestants have come to a consensus that sees them pair off, they are then briefly revealed to one another in the flesh. This is excruciating to watch. Standing in the darkroom, rigid with anxiety, they lick their lips and nervously clench and unclench their fingers. And then, for a few seconds, light falls upon them and they are reveled to their partner, whose response is concealed by the cloak of darkness.
The next step, the end of the show, has one member of each couple agreeing to meet the other one out on a balcony. Pitiless cameras watch as the person stands there, staring at the door, waiting to see if their appearance was sufficiently repellent as to drive the other person away.
One couple, Seth and Christina, had gotten along like a house on fire. With dreamy eyes, they made out in the dark, whispering sweet nothings to one another as if they had finally been delivered into the arms of their one and only. They were both attractive people, but the truth was that Seth looked the most like somebody you might find yourself standing next to in a line-up at Home Depot.
He, of course, was fully committed to the idea of Christina, and confidently, but not obnoxiously, stood out on the balcony waiting for her. Inside, we see shots of Christina in anguish, weeping, as she tries to decide if Seth is just too husky for her or not. We cut back to Seth, still on the balcony, now looking less confident. The camera lingers on him for what seems like an eternity, before jumping to Christina as she stomps determinedly out of the mansion, pulling her little suitcase along behind her.
Another episode had Megan standing nervously on the balcony waiting to see if Matt, who was inside trying to decide if she was too fat for him or not, was going to come out to see her again. Megan, like a lot of us, seemed to be cursed with platonic status in many of her relationships. You know, she was the funny, sensitive best friend the guy would have a beer with, but never actually want to do.
Sarcastic and used to rejection, she waited on the balcony as if staring at a firing line. She seemed to know that her fate was sealed, and she had a weary resignation written in her face. Time passed, and then more time passed, and then finally, Matt opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony. Megan leapt up in glee, spontaneously clapping her hands, and yelling, “Yay, you came!!” It was a sweet, almost adorable moment, an expression of relief and vindication, one that underscored, if briefly, the belief that our bodies are merely the vessels that we move in, and not who we are.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.