Screening Process: Is a night of TV an acceptable first date?

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Heart of Glass

We met at his place. I was wearing the snappy coat I only break out for parties. He had on a purple bomber jacket with a tiger woven into the back. It was a first date. He was taking me to a party, which was great — plenty of conversation buffers, and you’re allowed to get drunker than you can at a restaurant.

He was ready to go. He just wanted to watch the last ten minutes of American Idol first, so we plopped down on his couch. The screen was paused on a blonde girl who was thrusting an entire microphone into her enormous maw. When I told him I’d never seen the show, he briefly made a face like the priest in The Exorcist, then became visibly excited to deflower me to the experience.

We watched the last ten minutes of the show, then rewound it and watched the first fifty. After we finished American Idol, we watched an episode of Ugly Betty, then an episode of Lost, then two episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Then the night was over. We had sex and went to sleep.

Your first few dates with someone are allegedly make-or-break. You’re supposed to plan something that makes you seem creative and carefree, but not desperate — arranging a tandem parasail, for instance, might seem a bit eager. But television? Until recently, a TV-based first or second date would get a person blacklisted. But today, somehow, it seems to be okay. Here this guy and I were in his apartment, our first time hanging out, two reasonably social people who’d skipped a party in favor of having a threesome with America Ferrera.

Previously, the TV date was just an excuse to make out. But based on an informal poll of friends, they now function as legitimate activities in and of themselves, with several hours of genuine, attentive TV viewing before getting down to it, the same way you and your date might linger over dessert before heading home for a nightcap.

"Necking" is the only appropriate term for the fractionally erotic endeavor of making out in front of the TV.

Twenty-six-year-old Arianne recently experienced a TV-based third date with a man named Jeff. She thinks the rise of TV dating has coincided with our growing tendency to evaluate people based on their responses to things, as opposed to their own original thoughts and actions. "You used to judge people based on what they said and what they did," she says. "Now you judge them on how they react." And she’s right — my date had wanted to see my reaction to Idol. Inadequate enthusiasm on my part could have sunk me right there: Doesn’t like Idol? Not my type.

Arianne went out with Jeff a few more times after that first date, but eventually she ended it. She couldn’t get past the fact that he’d laughed at all the wrong parts of The Daily Show — the broader humor and bleeped-out profanities, but not the subtler, more ironic jokes. Could it be that Jeff’s mistimed reactions indicated a lack of nuance? Arianne wondered.

There’s more than a whiff of pop-culture hysteria ensconced in the TV date. We routinely list upward of twenty "Favorite TV Shows" in our online personal ads. We edit these lists down to a mix of the frivolous and the profound — A lover of D-Listed AND MacNeil/Lehrer? That’ll make ’em wet. We’ll toss in WKRP in Cincinnati for quirk value. And we fret when confronted with the profile belonging to that person who we thought could be our soulmate — until we noticed their proudly admitted obsession with reruns of Mad About You.

At some point during Lost, the guy in the sexy purple bomber jacket changed into ill-fitting sweats, and I removed my party-ready coat. We began necking, which seems the only appropriate term for the fractionally erotic endeavor that is half-making out, half-watching TV. This ambivalent foreplay continued intermittently for the next two-and-a-half hours, a choppy, tepid session that neither of us felt comfortable escalating out of fear we’d miss an important plot point. By the time we retired to the bedroom, what had started as genuine sexual tension had deflated like a Mylar balloon.

This is an inherent problem with the TV date. Being out — where you’re unable to really feel each other up — can gradually ratchet up the anticipatory horniness. But sitting on the couch watching television, it’s all too easy to start half-assedly getting it on way too far in advance. You risk blowing your wad before prime time is over.

But the TV date is excellent for eliminating awkwardness, especially if you encountered your date electronically and are seeing them face-to-face for the first time. Gary, a twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker in Los Angeles, met a guy online and went to his house for a night of HBO, where it quickly became clear the sexual chemistry wasn’t there. They hung out and watched TV all night instead. "We got Thai food and played with his dog," he says. (Gary later met his current boyfriend at a weekly gathering of friends who watch TV together.)

The best thing about the TV date might be its use as a time machine.

When John, twenty-five, ended up dating a girl who he’d known for years, a TV date helped ease their transition from long-time acquaintances to potential romantic partners. "Alexis and I had gone to the same high school, had mutual friends, but had never spoken more than four words to each other until we started dating here in New York," he says. Their third date, which they spent watching Law & Order reruns, "was crucial, because it still wasn’t clear if all we had was that familiarity coupled with wanting to hook up, or if we were actually interested in each other. So instead of questioning it, we had TV. Repeats on TV no less, adding even more comfort through familiarity."

The best thing about the TV date, however, might be its use as a time machine: it can help you see years ahead, into a potentially snug, boring long-term relationship. I once had a boyfriend where, after several months together, we’d essentially formed a polygamous three-way relationship with Hal Sparks on Talk Soup. The tedium broke us, and we three went our separate ways.

It doesn’t always happen that way. Melissa, a thirty-year-old artist who lives in Brooklyn, went on one or two movie dates with a guy a few years ago. "We liked each other a lot," she says. "So he invites me over to watch TV on a Sunday evening. My roommate was like, ‘Here it is. Payday. You’re getting laid. Pack your toothbrush.’ I go over there, and he wanted to watch X-Files. I didn’t like the show, but I lied on the phone and said, ‘Great! Can’t wait.’ We watched the show, and then I think the news came on. We’d kissed by this point, and cuddled on the couch during the show and held hands. And that was it.’" Afterward, he told Melissa she "should probably go," and that he’d call her the next day.

"Holy shit. What happened? I thought. And even though he did call the next day, I was weirded out and told him maybe we should just be friends, figuring he wasn’t attracted to me. Fast forward to the present day: this guy and I have been married for almost three years. Moral of the story? I think ‘TV date’ means different things to different people. To my lesbian best friend, it means drive to your date’s apartment with a U-Haul full of your shit, because it’s on. To my husband, though, I guess it meant, ‘Are we able to just be together and chill out?’"

What are they doing today? "Watching way too much TV together. But now at least I’m not lying about which shows I like, and I get past first base. Regularly."