TV review: Dates, Channel 4 - Bryan Elsley's new drama about modern relationships
The Fall, BBC2
In life, a one-night stand can scarcely be counted a success if it doesn't end in consummation. In television drama, no such rule applies, though there's always a dangerous temptation to go for the easy climax. You're not going to be seeing each other again, after all. There isn't another date next week when the disappointments of the evening can be made good with something extravagant (as Breaking Bad does so brilliantly).
So the writer who wants to leave an impression behind will always be tugged towards a gratifying finish. Credit due to Bryan Elsley, then, for ending the first of Dates, a series of dramas about modern relationships, with an ambiguity. Will David climb into the cab with Mia? Or will he stick to the diagnosis, made just seconds before, that she's a "nightmare"? Dates doesn't tell us. More to the point, it doesn't offer much of a clue as to whether he should.
Strictly speaking, a one-night stand isn't the perfect analogy here, because some of these characters are going to reappear in different permutations, in a kind of updated version of Schnitzler's La Ronde. But each half-hour episode also works as a stand-alone two-hander. I can't say I'll be in a hurry to meet Mia again, because the point of Oona Chaplin's character is that she's an ocean-going harridan, so entangled in a sense of her own sexual allure that she can barely utter an un-sarcastic sentence.
David, her blind date in this opening episode, is the exact opposite. Straightforward, plain-speaking, nervous and unassured. Mostly straightforward, anyway, since we discover that he's fibbed about his profession on the dating site. He's not a lawyer, he's a lorry driver, though he spills the beans about this deception so rapidly it barely qualifies as one.
Mia seems to be a semi-professional girlfriend and the counterpoint between his authentic openness and her defensive nastiness was the central theme. When he brushes off her brush-off, she's sufficiently piqued to stay and goad him into wanting her. We seem to be set for a simplistic confrontation between healing honesty and sexual scar tissue, one that depends on an over-neatness in David's apprehensions. "You are too clever for the world and it's hard being this beautiful and one step ahead of everyone all the time," he says, "I think it wears you out."
If you're that self-possessed, you think, how come you haven't got a girlfriend already? She blinks, unused to having a man look past the body-form black dress. Satisfyingly, though, her response is not a grateful surrender but a stepped-up viciousness. Even at the end you couldn't tell whether she was toying with him, which was intriguing enough to warrant a second date.
There's a vulgar name for what happened at the end of The Fall. It rhymes with "pleasing" and means precisely the opposite. In fact, so audacious was the drama's denial of climax that you could probably hear a muted roar of frustration as the credits rolled. We were not foolish to expect some kind of resolution. The BBC presented the series as a five-part drama and announced that there would be a second series only a little way into the transmission, as if to imply that their decision had been affected by audience response. So they must have known all along how sadistic they were about to be.
I find myself torn between disappointment and admiration. On the one hand, we have been left gagging for some kind of narrative release. On the other hand, Alan Cubitt's drama has always tried to twist away from the conventions of the form to something more complicated and unsettling. "Art gives the chaos of the world an order it doesn't deserve," said the killer last night. He would definitely have approved, I think.
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