Sunday, July 17, 2005

Real Women Seek Dates, Must Love Technology

ABC's five-part documentary series about women using the Web to find dates is comical, sad, entertaining and enlightening.
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
New York Times

The women here - these daters - look familiar. You know the type. Trim, breezy, frank, supremely at ease making confessions to cameras. They're recognizable anywhere now: reality-show Jens and Amys, spirited representatives of that plucky work force that dutifully fills the girls' slots on offerings from "Blind Date" to "The Apprentice" to "Beauty and the Geek."

Oh, but not quite. With cutie graphics, a catchy name and a setup that maximizes the chances that characters will have sex, "Hooking Up" sure looks like reality Frappuccino. But it's billed as hard news. Described as a "documentary series from ABC News" that "goes inside the unpredictable world of online dating," "Hooking Up," which starts tonight with the first of five parts, is brought to you by the same serious-minded journalists who created multipart documentary programs like "Hopkins 24/7," "Boston 24/7" and "N.Y.P.D. 24/7." This time, their dispassionate quest for the truth about the human condition has led them to shine a bright light on the lives of single women who, desperate for love, date many men and sleep around.

Which means the women are real - realer, say, than reality stars. ABC's news producers did not stage a casting call, cull their stars from a group of telegenic SoCal runaways, and pay them to run wild on Internet dating sites like Match.com and Lavalife. That's what entertainment divisions do. Instead, they contacted the sites directly and asked for lists of women who were already sold on online dating, thus keeping things real. In somber interviews, they determined who among these women were willing, in addition to going out with men they knew only from Internet profiles, to have their dates and deliberations filmed and broadcast. Presto: sufficient exhibitionism and fizz to attract reality viewers with just enough credibility to count as news.

Look, I'm just pointing this out. I'm not the Columbia Journalism Review. If ABC News wants to go supersoft for the lady viewers who prefer lifestyle stuff to guns and ammo, that's fine by me; I like reality television. And thus I find "Hooking Up" comical, sad, entertaining and enlightening. Its verité patina - in a format uncluttered by the redundant tribal-council-like rituals of many reality competitions - allows the characters a decent range of action and expression. And it's illuminating about the marvels and shortcomings of online dating.

In brief narration in the voice of a dater we learn, "With 40 million Americans hooking up online, there's got to be someone out there for me." But that statistic is the end of the program's pedantry. After that, we're up close and personal with a dozen successful, attractive New York women, ages 25 to 38, as they condemn men, idolize men, tire of men and try again.

It's a lively group. First there's Amy, a baby-faced 28-year-old ingénue from South Dakota who wants both to marry and breed and to flex her considerable sexual power. Something in her giggle and forthright eccentricity makes her the program's star. Cynthia, who is 34, is a grating, self-absorbed hair-salon manager; her stagy declarations of who she is - tough, sexy, choosy, take-no-guff - ring false, and her truest moment of emotion comes when she savors the prospect of an evening with the man the program calls her "occasional lover," a guy she calls when she wants to have duty-free sex.

Lisa, a 36-year-old gynecologist, seems sane with a charming kittenish side, until she insists on giving a false name to a surgeon she meets, and refuses to disclose that they share a profession. This is coyness passing as self-protection or professional responsibility (she doesn't want her patients or colleagues to recognize her online), and she seems a little too excited about it. ("If they know you're a doctor, forget it. They'll bring an engagement ring to the first date.") Twenty-six-year-old Claire, whose job has something to do with selling Viagra, comes across as cute and kind; her rejection by one sad sack in mutton-chop sideburns seems unfounded.

A nasty 29-year-old photographer named Maryam prods irritatingly at her dates until they leave in bewilderment. (Dating tip: Don't tell a guy he seems gay.) By contrast, Kelly, a 35-year-old grade-school teacher, seems unaware of the appeal of her sunny athleticism and guy's-girl good nature. She has spasms of self-consciousness about her class background that lead her to sabotage herself.

Watching these women, and several others, as they date men they find online offers as much insight into the Internet as it does into romance. A big deal for online daters is how honest people are in the profiles they post, and in their pictures, which often seem so enhanced as to qualify more as painting than photography. The clumsiest online daters often greet would-be soul mates with angry accusations of false advertising. Others pride themselves on their ability to detect standard sleights of hand, including waist-up photos of women ("She may be hiding what's called junk in the trunk," a man shrewdly notes). And they earnestly explain to the cameras how much they despise online liars.

But the best of these daters, like the best of all daters, are also forgiving. Finding moments of tenderness and amusement in "Hooking Up" requires some equally forgiving attention to this infotainment series, but it's well worth it. The players here are on quests to determine, of all things, what love means and where, if anywhere, it dovetails with technology and consumerism. That's a worthy quest. When they're honest with themselves, they discover in the vanity of others' online portraits only the vanity - and longing - of their own.

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