Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Horrors of Dating: Can I Be "Excused"?

The other night I was trying to explain to an Aussie the premise of a U.S. dating show called Excused. Trying to. I'm not convinced that he understood a word I was saying. Maybe I was too distracted by the fact that we were on a date, too, but if at first you don't succeed...

I'll try again.

At the beginning of the first round, two men or two women -- the "judges," for lack of a better reality-show term -- must choose from several suitors of the opposite sex. In video interviews, the suitors try to impress the judges into picking them. (Think the first round of the Cat Deeley-hosted The Voice rip-off The Choice, only without faded D-listers in the "judges" chairs.)

At the end of round 1, the judges pick two suitors, and the others are excused/slammed by a rather unappealing host named Iliza Schlesinger. Round two: Each judge goes out on a date with each suitor, after which the judges excuse one of the suitors, who is then subjected to another Schlesinger dis. And then there are three: two girls and a guy, or two guys and a girl.

Round three: The tables turn, and the last-remaining suitor goes out on a date with each judge, after which he or she gets to excuse one. In the final round, one man and one woman are left standing, separately, and they meet in the courtyard if they are interested in pursuing things further.

Game over -- or just beginning.

Got that?

The boring Bachelor-lite dates in each episode give the show a low-budget non-sheen that makes it seem like little more than a showcase for Schlesinger's disses and quips. Sample: "Congratulations, you guys. Now you can move on from phone sex to real sex." The show's tagline -- "Rejection has never been funnier" -- unfortunately says it all.

Only it's not as funny as Schlesinger thinks she is. I'd rather watch Frasier, or even Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the two U.S. sitcoms whose reruns preceded Excused at 6pm in Channel Eleven's late afternoon "Couch Time" line-up, but Excused has been good for one thing, if not laughter. While watching today's episode, I made a valuable but horrifying discovery, one which I'd previously thought only applied to fictional characters like Frasier and Niles Crane: Dating is really quite humiliating.

I suppose I sort of already knew this, but sometimes it's hard to clearly see certain truths about your own life while you're living it. Granted, dating shows are meant to entertain via humiliation, but in a way, Excused brings the reality dating show closer to real life. That's partly because of Schlesinger's commentary, which is intended to make the rejects feel as demeaned as we do in real life when a love interest doesn't call, but mostly it's because Excused presents wooing and rejecting as a two-way street in two parts, the way it often is in real life.

In the first part, one person does the wooing and the other gets to play it aloof and cool. He or she holds all the power. Then just when he or she thaws (as they're pulling into part 2), or dares to develop feelings, bam! The former wooer takes control of the power trip. How often in real life have we played hard to get, only to be excused when we finally give it up? Fiona Apple wrote an entire song -- "Dull Tool" from the This Is 40 soundtrack -- about it.

"You, you stuck around,
You stuck around,
You stuck around,
Until you got me
Then, then you dropped me"

In Excused, after both parties have had a chance to play wooed and potentially rejected (incidentally, sort of like the initial round of The Voice, whose second-season Australian edition is now airing), in a conclusion that's similar to the climax of Dating in the Dark, they must each wait to see whether the other person really wants them. In real life, that's the part where you wait for your phone to ring after you've let the person who's been pursuing you know that you dig him or her, too.

It's a two way street in two parts that I've traveled on too often in my own romantic life and one that looks even uglier in living color on TV than when I'm on it. While watching Dating in the Dark, I always had to look through my fingers while contestants discussed the pros and cons of pursuing their love interests. Sure that stuff goes on in the minds of the people we date in real life, but thankfully, we never have to actually see that thought process?

I've always known that love is just a game (thank you, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers Band), one that like any good match, requires strategy and stealth. But dating is a game show, with winners, losers and way too much shameful humiliation. Occasionally, there's even an audience, especially for couples who like to do their dating not in the dark but in public. Personally, I prefer to do it at home, in front of the TV, where I can try to explain crap like Excused in private.

Though I'm not particularly keen on watching or playing, I prefer the dating game show when it's on TV. It's like a car wreck, or Jeopardy. If it's on, I can't not look. If only I didn't have to play anymore. It's so much easier to sit through when none of the contestants are me.

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