Unless you met your mate straight off the bat, bing, bang, boom, you’ve probably had the distinct honor of going on first dates, many of them blind, most of them awkward, some of them creepy, one or two of them, perhaps, ennobling. First dates are often quite heightened experiences, one- or two-hour periods during which everything — a glance at a cellphone, the choice of drink, visits to the restroom, the duration of eye contact — seems to say something. The little things, across the table from an imperfect stranger, mean a lot.
“Dates,” a promising 2013 British anthology series that the CW has, for some reason, decided to run this summer, capitalizes on that heightened quality. Each half- hour — the CW is running two a week beginning Thursday at 9 p.m. — is a portrait of a first date between two people who’ve connected through an online dating service. We have a front-row seat to the self-conscious banter, the slow unloading of old-relationship baggage, and the surprise reveals — in episode one, for example, the admission by David (Will Mellor) that he is a lorry driver and not a lawyer, as advertised, and the aside that he is a father of four. We’re voyeurs, in a way, to interactions that might turn disastrous, or might blossom, as the safe distance of the Internet dissolves across the night.
The “David and Mia” episode is the perfect start to the series. He’s an online-dating newbie trying to be sincere, while Mia (Oona Chaplin) is a seasoned and cynical veteran who appears to have a drinking problem. They clash instantly, as she tosses snide insults his way, leaving him to ask her, “Are you always this horrible?” The more honest and compassionate he is, the more defensive and offensive Mia becomes. It’s fascinating to watch her struggle to sabotage the night in spite of his good will. But then, is there some chemistry emerging from the wreckage, if David can ultimately get her to remove her suit of armor?
In some ways, “Dates” reminds me of the great “In Treatment,” the HBO series that put us in the room with a therapist and his clients. It’s not nearly as deep a show, the scripts aren’t as complex and demanding, and the focus is rudely interrupted by commercials. But it has the same kind of intimacy, the same one-act play format that makes each half-hour a self-contained chamber drama, and the same willingness to explore the characters slowly, to let us fully savor the subtext behind each one of their comments and facial expressions. “Dates” presents its characters as types, as they present themselves as types to each other; but then it lets enough ambiguity surface to make them — and the end of their date — ultimately unpredictable. On one level, Mia is a devil as she toys with David, but we begin to see that there’s something broken about her, as if she’s trapped in her relentless superficiality, and that evokes sympathy. Both Mia and David, by the way, return later in the nine-episode season.
Created by Bryan Elsley, who also created “Skins,” “Dates” is about the games people have always played, the universals of the difficulties of finding love. In the second episode, shy teacher Jenny just can’t seem to be herself as she faces the blustery Nick; that’s an age-old problem in the dating world. Like many people on dates, she feels vulnerable and needy, and therefore constructs a persona to hide behind.
But “Dates” is also about the games people play specifically in the era of online dating. When these couples finally meet, they’ve already seen photos and exchanged e-mails. But they don’t have mutual friends who’ve done the vetting. If they are disappointed — if that online photo is 20 years old, if that occupation or salary has been exaggerated — they can also feel betrayed. In the two episodes I saw, none of the characters was outright catfished, but some felt misled. For Mia, though, David’s lie about his job makes her smile; she feels it gives her the advantage she so desperately wants.
“Dates” is markedly different from most of the CW’s programming. It has no superheroes, no vampires, no zombies, none of the fantasies bred to console the younger demographics. It’s as candid and absorbing as reality TV isn’t. It appears to be a show for adults, one that, perhaps, the CW hopes to remake if the original flies. Let’s see what happens. But yeah, the first two episodes definitely left me wanting to have more dates with “Dates.”
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.