Even before its first episode was transmitted in April last year, The Undateables (Channel 4, 2012- ) polarised opinion. Promoted as ‘an uplifting… series [which] follows the journeys of several extraordinary singletons as they enter the dating circuit in pursuit of love’, it was variously condemned by commentators as a 21st century version of ‘the Victorian circus freak show’, or defended as ‘sensible, sensitive and kind.’ My initial response to the poster promotion for the first series was one of apprehension at what seemed likely to be an exercise in exploitative documentary-making – yet I quickly found myself joining the audiences of over two and a half million.
For those unfamiliar with the format, each episode focuses on the stories of selected individuals deemed ‘undateable’ due to some form of disability or disfigurement, ranging from brittle bones to Asperger’s. Subjects are followed as they seek love, often via dating agencies, and are typically shown preparing for and embarking on first dates with potential partners. Although the series ostensibly operates with the full co-operation of participants and their families (many of whom are shown in interview scenarios), much criticism has been levelled at what some perceive as the condescendingly humorous tone adopted by the programme-makers. This humour, however, takes two distinct forms. Those taking part are frequently seen taking a light-hearted approach to their particular dating disability in a manner that serves to deflate the unfortunate sense of ‘other’ engendered by the (much debated) series title. Participants in the programme seldom fail to inspire a sense of empathy (as opposed to sympathy) as they go about their quest for romance, prompting Metro’s critic to proclaim – possibly with a slightly uneasy sense of relief – that ‘this is a series that it is OK to laugh at.’ At its best, The Undateables taps into the near-universality of the desire for love and companionship, and the ability to laugh at ourselves. However, this is too often negated by the programme’s use of voiceover narration, editing and incidental music to create a tone that is at best arch and at worst somewhat mocking; a sense of the viewer as outsider looking in at a bizarre world of the other. This comic touch is immediately noticeable in the opening credits, in which Cupid’s arrow is seen to strike the ‘Un-’ from the series title, and the trailers employed to promote the series. In one of these, aspiring poet Shaine’s attempt to amuse his date, Jackie, with a one-liner about the mushroom who is ‘a fun guy (fungi) to be with’ is met with stony-faced silence. Only when this episode is viewed in its entirety does it become clear that Jackie’s impassive reaction is in fact a symptom of her own learning disability.
While the ethics of such documentary-making require lengthier debate than is possible here, the main problem of The Undateables is perhaps best summed up as a conflict of documentary ‘voice’; I for one am too often left uncertain for whom is the programme truly speaking. This lack of focus is reflected by the absence of a decisive mode of approach. Of the various documentary typologies proposed by Bill Nichols, The Undateables could at various points be categorised as expository (typified by a ‘voice of God’ narration), participatory (featuring interviews with the subjects), performative (in which subjects’ awareness of and interaction with the cameras potentially complicates our understanding of their behaviour) and observational (the camera crew taking a back seat as they follow the various goings-on). However, all too often this proves to be an uneven mix. The light-hearted narration provided by actress Sally Phillips provides a disjunctive effect that distances viewers from the subjects whose personal stories in fact provide the core of the series’ interest. A notable example of this came in the first episode, in which the voiceover description of the ‘extraordinary singletons’ who would be followed ‘as they take their first steps into the world of dating, sharing their highs and lows in their quest for love’ was roundly criticised as ‘overtly patronising’ by Deborah Caulfield of Disability Arts Online.
A second voice is, of course, provided by the subjects themselves, and the performative element is arguably the series’ greatest strength; many of the subjects prove so engaging as individuals that critics have been prepared to forgive the show some of its editorial faults. ‘Star’ turns to date have included the afore-mentioned Shaine, whose initial appearance in series one had allegedly resulted in a degree of romantic interest from members of the public by the time the programme revisited him in 2013. Similarly, the story of office-worker Ray, who suffers from a learning disability, provided a soap-like element to his segments when it was revealed that his ex-girlfriend – now managing the dating agency which was attempting to find him a new partner – was having second thoughts about their split.
The observational mode is probably that which is least frequently employed on The Undateables, yet often proves extremely effective. While the presence of cameras during dates is perhaps too obtrusive to be regarded as truly observational – it is usual for the beginning of the meeting to be shown before the couple in question are given their ‘privacy’, perhaps seen in long-shot – the programme occasionally captures brief moments of genuine intimacy. For example, in the second episode of series two, the camera is following Crouzon syndrome sufferer Steve as he prepares for a first date, when his mobile phone rings. In what certainly seems one of the programme’s more authentic ‘fly-on-the-wall’ moments, the audience is witness, over the course of a brief and one-sided conversation, to Steve’s disappointment as it becomes clear that the other party is cancelling at the eleventh hour. Such sequences offer the series’ strongest moments of communality – it would be difficult for viewers not to be affected by a moment which many will have shared – yet are altogether too fleeting and, like the participatory element mentioned above, at odds with the imposed whimsy of the programme’s post-production foibles.
It is this schism which problematises The Undateables as documentary, and, as already noted, the voice of critics and viewers throughout programme’s two-series run has been similarly divided; my own continuing sense of unease as a viewer is not significantly lessened by my awareness of the binary. To be truly representative of its subjects, The Undateables would do better to abandon its position of distance (and arguably condescension) – either replacing the voiceover commentary with on-screen captions, or doing away with exposition altogether – and instead allow participants to tell their own stories in their own voice. Such a video diary style of presentation might well prove more palatable to the programme’s vocal critics than the ironic commentary which currently predominates, and would capitalise on its existing strength: the warmth and humour of its subjects. In this way The Undateables would perhaps come closer to Channel 4’s stated intention, ‘to challenge preconceptions about disability [and] help stimulate debate around some of the important issues the programme touches on.’
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London. His PhD thesis, Acting for Auntie: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, 1953-2008, examines changes in acting style for British television drama, and was completed at the University of Nottingham in 2012. Publications include ‘Acting in the New World: Studio and Location Realism in Survivors‘ in The Journal of British Cinema and Television Volume 10.2, and ‘Who is Matt Smith?: Performing the Doctor’ in O’Day, Andrew (ed), The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I.B. Tauris, forthcoming, 2013).