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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

We Watch It So You Don't Have To: "Dating in the Dark"

You can't start a fire without a spark. Or at least good eyesight.

Sorry to mangle Bruce Springsteen's lyrics just now. But "Dating in the Dark" -- an ABC reality dating show that doubles as a clever social experiment (don't they all?) -- takes the idea of the blind date to extreme ends with a concept that's equally entertaining and educational. Now, if that's not worthy of the Boss, what is?

I'll have to admit to not being a reality dating show expert. Never watched "The Bachelor" or "The Bachelorette" before. And I'm not sure if late night viewings of "ElimiDATE" back in college even count. Either way, "Dating in the Dark" grabbed my attention last night because, quite frankly, it sounded like a pretty fun concept. Either that, or it was going to be a complete train wreck, and with nothing to watch on Monday nights, well, I didn't care about wasting an hour or two for the sake of this blog.

Maybe setting the bar so low helped, because I was pleasantly surprised by my initial viewing. So surprised, in fact, that I'm not that embarrassed to say I really, really enjoyed it and would probably TiVo this bad boy in the future. Yeah, I'm the same guy who watches "The Wire" and "Mad Men." Sue me.

First, the premise: "Dating" is exactly what the title says it's going to be. Three men and three women settle into opposite wings of a mansion and meet in a pitch black room with infrared cameras recording their interaction. Since they can't see their hands in front of their own faces, they have to use the "Helen Keller treatment," as one contestant glibly says, to get a feel for what the person may or may not look like.

With actual blinders on because of their blackout surroundings, they're forced to talk about interests and family -- and of course, harmlessly flirt -- knowing that the person sitting next to them might look like Clint Howard (that was Boyd's nightmare suggestion, by the way). But it's all about the picture perfect image in your head at that point, all leading to the big reveal -- when a lone light shines on each dating contestant as they stand across from each other -- allowing each to make a final decision on whether what they experienced in the dark room matches their feelings about the person's newly discovered physical profile.

In the first episode I saw last night, the three couples were actually matched up as such -- three and three. As part of the deliberation, each contestant was told to work with a sketch artist to create a picture of what they actually thought the other one looked like. In most cases, the sketches were dead on. In others, the guy looked like Ricky Martin, so again, it's all about what's inside someone else's head, and perhaps, what they truly want out of that big reveal. Whether that ideal impression matches with the real article ultimately determines whether someone is going to pursue a relationship beyond the camera.

The final moment is a meet-up on the balcony. If the couple wants to get together after the physical reveal, they'll show up. If not, they'll walk out the front door instead and the person waiting on the balcony will see their rejection manifested in the slow walk up a driveway.

Last night's first episode saw contestants go 2-for-3, with the lone loser (who admittedly, was the least attractive of the guys) getting ditched by the female who was probably the most attractive of her trio (the dark-haired woman at right). The fact that they already made out probably sealed the deal for the woman who walked away, because let's face it, once you've played kissy-face with the lights off, you can't really go back to just holding hands with Hobbit Boy.

Yet rather than a gratuitous "you just got burned" moment on the balcony, the show actually appears to make a statement. Physical attraction -- as if we all didn't know this already -- IS important. And for all the excitement that's built up in someone's head by just sitting down and connecting on an emotional level, if that spark isn't there when the lights come on, it's over.

Or maybe not. Allister, the suave European, chose to arrive on the balcony even though his female counterpart dressed like she was Cinderella -- the version that was forced to scrub bathroom floors, not the glittering princess. So even though it wasn't a perfect physical match, he was intrigued enough by their dark room interaction and perhaps, the connection provided by that experience.

Ultimately though, does this gimmick toy with one's self esteem in cruel, inhumane ways? Probably. But it's also fairly realistic. Nowhere was this more apparent than in last night's second episode -- which in my estimation had a weaker premise since one of the male contestants was billed off the bat as a personal trainer. Immediately, this created an impression of fitness and hotness in the females' minds, and of course, they all gravitated to his buff biceps in the dark and his well-rehearsed lines about "caring only about honestly and trust." Oooooh, swooooooooon.

So all three ladies ended up picking Chris, the dashing personal trainer, while the other two rejected schmucks sat in the corner picking their toenails. Only problem with Chris? While a strapping lad with a bright future, in a full suit, he looked like he was two years removed from his First Communion. Looking that young and preppy gave him a little brother quality, and all three women -- despite developing serious crushes on him just five minutes previous -- left him standing alone on the balcony. Irony, you are a sadistic beast!

For me, it was fun to see a bunch of strangers get worked up about finding their perfect mate without actually seeing them. And everyone was completely aware that they might be let down by the "hotness" quotient, but it didn't prevent them from acting emotionally responsible in the dark.

Or put it this way dear reader, now you know how that guy or girl felt in college when he/she woke up the following morning having finally sobered up ...

"Dating in the Dark" airs at 8 p.m. Mondays on ABC.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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