Culture

Blind dating

Culture | Dating shows demonstrate how network standards have changed

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002

If you watch much TV-and I'm not saying I recommend this-then you've probably noticed that it's sometimes difficult to find something other than a dating show to watch. Some networks-The WB is a prime example-seem to be adopting a new corporate motto: "All Dating, All the Time."

Dating shows, such as The Dating Game, have been popular in the past, but had fallen out of style. Then came the birth (or rebirth) of reality TV. Shows such as CBS's Survivor couch interpersonal intrigue in the pretense of competition, but network execs soon realized that the highlights of these shows were not the physical challenges, but the emotional ones. So what's reality TV without cash prizes, tropical islands, and sky-high budgets? You guessed it, The Dating Game.

And so we have Rendez-View, Elimidate, Ship Mates, The 5th Wheel, and Change of Heart, just to name a few. All of these shows have several elements in common: a condescending, snide host (or hosts); self-promoting, masochistic subjects; and about every titillating set-up imaginable.

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These low-budget reality TV knock-offs give a clear picture of how network TV standards have changed. The technique of pixelating portions of the TV screen to disguise a person's identity or to hide nudity that was popularized by the show Cops is now standard fare on dating shows. Dating show producers follow the onscreen action as far as it goes, with only the blurred portions of the screen feebly acknowledging standards of decency.

The worst of these programs is Cheaters, which, with the most sanctimonious of attitudes, attempts to catch husbands, wives, boyfriends, or girlfriends in the act of cheating, then stage an often bizarre outdoor confrontation between the parties involved.

A fictional relationship show, the ABC drama Once and Again, is now in its third season, and it's also veering off course. Structured more as a recurring miniseries than a typical TV drama, Once and Again has found a faithful audience, thanks in part to its charismatic stars and semi-realistic take on modern family life.

Originally, the show was built around a dramatized Brady Bunch-type plot, where two recently divorced parents fall in love and remarry. Much of the show's tension was based on the complications that surround courtship in an age of fractured families. But now that Rick and Lily, played by Billy Campbell and Sela Ward, have married, the show's writers have had to stretch a little further for their material.

In the March 11 episode, Jesse, Rick's teenage daughter, begins to explore her sexuality, culminating in a passionate kiss with a female classmate.

Once and Again has been interesting not because it at all acknowledges a Christian worldview, but because it has, in the past, dealt frankly with the absolute chaos divorce creates: divided loyalties, neglected children, irreparably damaged relationships, not to mention messy carpool schedules, custody agreements, and holiday plans. (Of course, while noticing these complexities, Once and Again has never identified the fundamental problems at the heart of these families' difficulties.)

But the show has veered dramatically into the territory of the politically correct, teaching this combined family, and ABC's television viewers, about the importance of self-discovery and sexual awakening, whatever form they take. It was shocking to see two young actresses, presumably in their early teens, do what few adult actors would have done not many years ago. If this is noticed at all in the mainstream media, which is unlikely, the show will be called "bold" and "groundbreaking." It's not. It's a series that has lost its dramatic force and is overreaching for new, controversial material.

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