One of the questionable perks of working from home is that you become intimate with daytime television. I can confirm that between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., a majority of ESPN’s programming consists of two well-dressed idiots yelling at each other. Yes, Dear is just as unfunny as you’ve been told. Contrary to previous reports, MTV and VH1 play music videos.
I am also certain that daytime TV is not what it once was. During my first bouts of unemployment in 2001 and 2002, I was floored by the variety bestowed upon me. I was supposed to be sending resumes, but the process was unorganized and uninspired. Job searching was boring and fruitless. Television provided endlessly entertaining options, especially dating shows. I got hooked.
The day began on the lighter side with TLC’s A Dating Story, which was bubbly and benign and almost always featured couples from Philadelphia. A few hours later, after I had eaten lunch and sent out cover letters destined to be ignored, I would strap in for Blind Date and Shipmates. This was by far the highlight of the day until the blessed late afternoon appearances of The Simpsons and Seinfeld.
Blind Date was the gold standard for what I call on-the-scene (OTS) dating shows. These should not be confused with the likes of The Millionaire Matchmaker or The Bachelor, which rely on a braying force of personality and a fairy tale-inspired train wreck, respectively. All OTS dating shows share similar qualities—the couples have never met before, volatile reactions and hot tub canoodling are encouraged—but Blind Date‘s versatility was unmatched. The Roger Lodge-hosted half hour could function as comedy, thanks to the writers’ constant stream of biting blurbs and thought bubbles that appeared during the action. And it was an illuminating look into the single person’s mindset, thanks to the sage advice of Therapist Joe, a cartoon head sporting a pipe and bow tie that popped up during some calamitous social gaffe. Plus there was a good chance a nubile, fame-hungry babe would strip down to a bikini in front of a national audience.
Shipmates eschewed any notion of substance. Hosted by Chris Hardwick, formerly of MTV’s Singled Out—a show that introduced two troubling elements of the mid-1990s: Jenny McCarthy and guys wearing leather vests without shirts—I am amazed Shipmates never resulted in a homicide. The show featured two people whose first date stretched over a three-day cruise. I prayed that the couple hated each other, so I could relish the growing tension. I was rarely disappointed.
There were other shows during that time. On MTV’s Room Raiders, which still pops up occasionally, a contestant chose their date based on the candidates’ three bedrooms. It turns out that women are most comfortable in homes free of dust and porn. That shouldn’t have been a revelation, but it was. I had a brief, unpleasant affair with The Fifth Wheel—two guys and two girls date each other, and then another contestant arrives—until I noticed that “the fifth wheel” was always a bisexual nymphomaniac straight from Cinemax late night. Eventually, I became saddened watching it: This poor, oversexed girl had parents. (Another side effect: The Fifth Wheel inspired MTV’s unholy Next.) I don’t like being weighed down by morality when I watch TV, so I opted for elimiDATE, where four guys or girls would vie (i.e., embarrass themselves) for the attention of a single suitor. It was amusing late-night fare and it contributed to one of my favorite TV moments. elimiDATE aired on Long Island’s TV 55, right after the 11 o’clock news. Every evening, anchor Richard Rose would be forced to announce the show’s upcoming arrival. His delivery took on the defeated tone of a hostage video.
In what should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, I was not dating regularly at this time. I watched dating shows the way that sci-fi obsessed teens would watch Star Trek or The X-Files, like it was a magical world that I could only dream about. I manufactured this warped self-esteem, and I’m still not entirely sure why. It took a decent job, buying a condo, and not scheduling my day around fake boobs and strangers’ public embarrassment for me to venture into the dating scene.
When I did, I discovered that those rudderless afternoons and evenings served a purpose: They previewed the roulette of rejection and weirdness that is dating. There was the time on Blind Date when a bored female dater glanced at her wrist and mentioned that it was time for her to get going. “That’s not a watch,” the man replied. One episode of elimiDATE concluded with a woman praising a guy for being nice and then casting him aside for those qualities. I distinctly remember a man on A Dating Story going the Michael Scott joke-a-minute route and feeling immense pity for him and his companion. For every hot tub tryst or tequila-infused make-out session on the Fifth Wheel bus—which I wouldn’t have entered wearing a Hazmat suit—there were five testosterone-draining atrocities.
Though the aggravation of this social ritual wasn’t a complete surprise, it was still draining, which is why Can’t Get a Date came along at the perfect time. Premiering on VH1 in 2006, the show featured a never-seen narrator (the show’s creator, Stefan Springman) who would accompany an unlucky-in-love New Yorker and mold him or her into form. All the lessons and work—which took place over three months, according to Springman—culminated in a date. The show’s beauty was that even if there was no love connection, the people were happy with themselves, which is a dater’s biggest asset. Nobody wants to buy anything from a salesman who hates his product line. Can’t Get a Date was indispensable because it offered hope, not punch lines. I wasn’t surprised when Springman told me he doesn’t watch TV—or that VH1 dumped the show for Flavor of Love.
I wish non-prime time programming followed this educational model, instead of relying on Skip Bayless or straight-talking judges. I know I benefited. My fiancée and I are marrying in August. As far as I know, there’s no reality TV show that chronicles the life of a roller skate-skinny, sweet college professor and a sarcastic, bearded freelance writer. What happens next? Stay tuned.
(Image: Abandoned Bouquet of Red Roses on Street from pinksherbet’s photostream)