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DVD Review: Dates

3rd October 2013

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Dates, the London-set Channel 4 drama from Skins creator Brian Elsley, has quite a lot to live up to with its imminent DVD release, after premiering to critical acclaim in the summer.

Being described as “classy” and “a little nugget of bliss” in the mainstream press, Dates focuses on the unstable and potentially sinister sphere of London singletons vs. online dating, and aims to capture “out of the norm dating scenarios.” Although there are no in the norm dating scenarios, of course, and the feelings presented here are actually very much of the norm: miscommunication, nervousness, confusion; all punctuated with indecisive chatter.

Dates has been praised for sensitively showing characters at their most vulnerable, and there is no doubt that it does this. However, I do think that at times the characterisation is slightly lazy – why do all northerners in London have to be bubbling and nervous and lost on the tube, for example? Who actually moves here and gets lost on the DLR, as Sheridan Smith admits to doing “several times” in the second episode? Other characters snipe at each other, ostensibly because they’re being ‘guarded’ – but it occasionally feels like they need to get over their neurosis and start acting like the 20/30/40-something adults that they are. We’re not in Skins anymore; characters can’t successfully get away with being as self-absorbed as 17-year-olds.

Having said this, we of course don’t have to like the characters - that’s hardly the point of great television - and as the series goes on they do gain a greater depth and we begin to understand more of their motivations. So maybe I’m doing them a disservice.

In reflection of its title, Dates is very, very talky. The actors (amongst them Sheridan Smith, Gemma Chan and Will Mellor, all on good form) carry the emotional intensity well, although with so much speech and relatively little action (albeit a few ambiguous, unexpected moments) the script needs to be something exceptional. Often, Dates feels like it falls slightly short.

I also felt like the show as a whole is having a slight identity crisis – is it a comedy? A drama? Both, or neither? A social commentary in the manner of Black Mirror? In episode five, “Ellie and “David”, while discussing work, Ellie comes out with the classic admission “I do other things in my spare time. I’m compiling a collection of William Blake lithographs depicting my entire sexual history on Tumblr.” How can the first four episodes have a largely pitch black tone, with zero humour, whilst the fifth has lines such as this? Dates needs more of these unexpected moments, if they are going to be there at all. It’s a generally difficult one to categorise, and it can leave us confused over what we feel about it. But, reflecting awkward situations as it does, maybe that’s the point.

So overall, other than making the viewer absolutely never want to go on a date in London ever again, Dates does what it sets out to – capturing the awkwardness of first dates in a city that is often  accused, fairly or not, of being largely impersonal. It succeeds in showing the darkness that can come out amongst strangers, and as the episodes go on we do find that its protagonists are less one-dimensional than they first appear. So, is Dates one of the must buy DVD releases of 2013? No. Is it an interesting and occasionally thought provoking way to spend a few rainy hours of an October weekend? Yes. And that’s probably exactly what it set out to be.

Dates is released on DVD on 7th October.

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