The elimiDATE web site states that “every episode offers a regional look at survival of the fittest in the fickle world of dating.” This description, though modest, aptly describes the reality dating show. Featuring “one lucky single” and a cadre of four suitors, the half-hour show follows their date as the suitors are eliminated one by one, game show style, by the object of their affection until only one remains. The individual doted on by the dates inevitably comes across as a cheerfully blank and simple entity that must be flattered and manipulated. The four dates come across as calculating players bent on success. Their personal appearances, interests, and professional lives are aimed at their central target.
“Excuse me,” says Ralphie the Choreographer, pushing Pete out of the way to impress Karen with his dance moves. In pre-commercial interviews throughout the show, Pete appears to be wounded and self-righteous about Ralphie’s usurpation. The heads of all the dates appear at the bottom of the screen before every break and each suitor chooses the person he believes will be eliminated. A red “X” appears over that person’s face. Although Pete would be justified in speculating about Ralphie’s elimination, he accurately selects Lou, an obnoxious record company CEO who keeps repeating that he has the #1 Dance CD in the country. After the commercial break, Karen will dump Lou with a few friendly, noncommittal words as to why he just isn’t working out. Ralphie finally wins. While we may prefer Pete, with his collar sticking out of his earth-toned sweater and his daydreamer’s demeanor, we can appreciate that brash Ralphie is in fact a more appropriate match for Karen.
While elimiDATE is fundamentally a test of power dynamics under highly artificial conditions, its draw is in its moments of first-date awkwardness. There’s sexual miscalculation, as when Marin sucks on Ken’s thumb and is dumped in the next round. There are people fumbling through the date’s trials, making complete fools of themselves in a bid for attention. There’s ambivalence, as when Kara admits that she wasn’t even sure that she liked Mike anyway. The fickleness of the wooed always surprises. elimiDATE is nothing if not unpredictable. Like dates in the world outside of television, the dates of elimiDATE unravel in a chaotic sphere of physical attraction, personal considerations of who would be ideal for a temporary hook-up and who would weather a second date, and sheer randomness balanced against external conditions.
The “regional” aspect of the show, which films in various U.S. cities, is one of the advantages it has over competitors like UPN’s Blind Date (which moves around half-heartedly every few episodes but mainly stays in L.A.) and Shipmates (which takes place, significantly, in the netherworld of the cruise ship). The nomadic structure of the show allows the viewer to wander through social interactions from coast to coast, viewing the stereotype, the iconoclast, and the everyman/woman.
In fact, it may even influence the viewer’s perception of these cities and prove that Midwestern people truly are nicer, or certainly less draconian, than everyone else in the country. One particularly memorable episode from Nashville trails four bright-eyed blond women with distinct twangs and a strapping blond man. One of the girls calls another a “redneck” and the insulted girl calmly points out that she was, in fact, born a Yankee. In addition to making for compelling television, the local color roots the filmed individuals in their daily lives and provides them with an immediate, if one-dimensional, identity. In fact, elimiDATE Deluxe, which aired two primetime episodes on the WB network this October before being canceled due to poor ratings, may have floundered in part because it spirited its dates away to such ethereal locales as Aspen and Cancun.
Another reason elimiDATE Deluxe may have failed while elimiDATE, shown in syndication, enjoys ratings that grow by the week, is time slot. Dating shows are ideally shown outside of primetime, in the syndicated spaces of morning, afternoon, and late night television. This means that viewers of dating shows have to acknowledge the somewhat cultish nature of their involvement. Rather than following a show week by week, they tune in daily during interstitial hours, an entirely different type of commitment than primetime.
Comparatively, viewing in these slots is often simultaneously religious and off-handed. Shows can be missed but the interest is seemingly endless, as the episodes don’t possess a narrative that stops and starts according to the seasonal cycles of primetime television. Like the reality they purport to mimic, these shows look like they can go on indefinitely. As David Garfinkle, the creator of Blind Date, states somewhat ominously, “The MTV generation, who grew up watching reality on MTV, are grown up now and the networks are seeing that reality doesn’t only work but that it is necessary. You can’t ignore it. People want to watch it.”
From the pioneering Blind Date (that not only exhibits the date but packages it with witty commentary) to Fifth Wheel, Chains of Love, Dismissed, Rendez-View, Shipmates, and elimiDATE, dating shows are enjoying a remarkable renaissance. No longer is Chuck Woolery garnering the second hand information for us. We’re seeing it all, or a carefully edited version of it all, for ourselves. These shows all elicit a viewer’s sense of romance, competition, comedy, and schadenfreude through the lens of the real. One of the appeals of elimiDATE is its good-natured approach to its subjects. While many of the new shows use mockery that borders on condescension, elimiDATE has a confidence that eschews cheap shots. In the end, the eliminated rarely seem upset. They usually skip off like good sports, happy with their fifteen minutes. The viewer is reminded that it’s all just a game played for her enjoyment.
The inundation of reality dating shows, like talk shows and court shows before them, is ultimately tied to cheap production values. Perhaps the future of reality television lies not in a miniseries of hour-long elaborately panoptical dramas, but rather in discrete half-hour segments. The encapsulation of gender dynamics, sexual ethics, and human interactions, trapped within the safe grid of heterosexual youth, lends these shows their popularity with advertising’s favorite demographic, 18-34.
Many of the dates on elimiDATE are adamantly innocent; even the dates that visit fetish gear retail outlets are tongue-in-cheek. Forced into rubber suits, the participants look more like costume party space aliens than leather daddies. As creator Alex Duda has said, “This is the kind of date your mother might send you on. It’s a group date; it’s the safest date there is. It’s like a training-wheel date.”
elimiDATE‘s sweetly Darwinian laboratory successfully courts the viewer with an easy familiarity. Its “training-wheel” realism hooks the viewer by bringing the emotional investment of other reality television shows to the level of the daily. elimiDATE‘s games reflect and refract the minute struggles that exist in relationships between people. Both recognizable enough to be safe and strange enough to pique curiosity, its pleasures are addictive.