First Dates Ireland: ‘You’re a bit infatuated with yourself’

The show’s real magic is when a date turns into mutual loathing

Leigh might have been happier dating a mirror.

Leigh might have been happier dating a mirror.

 

A few words of wisdom are dispensed early in the first episode of the new series of First Dates Ireland, which, while hardly original, are clearly key to understanding the show. “Just be yourself,” the suave maître D tells one nervous suitor “and magic will happen.”

Admittedly, he does not specify the precise brand of magic he should expect, the abracadabra of romance or the hocus-pocus of a manipulative anthropological experiment, but either way the audience gets a ta-da.

Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps the programme makers, casting personnel and psychologists who arrange these blind dates really do hope every couple has a fighting chance of finding a connection. Maybe a restaurant under dazzlingly bright lights, stalked by multiple unseen cameras, whose waiting staff enquire routinely into the passions of their patrons is a natural crucible for romance.

But when we meet Jackie, a Dubliner whose personality is very much larger than life and whose iridescent, trailing dress is several sizes smaller, then spy the meek Carlow farmer, Joey, who looks less like her natural dinner companion than something she might find on the menu, you could be forgiven for thinking the recipes here are specifically for disaster.

Actually, they seem to get on like a house on fire, with Joey in the role of the house. “Scary Spice,” he describes his ideal woman to the camera, “that’s what I want.”

Together they laugh easily and plentifully, seemingly at every utterance. It’s hard to tell if it’s love, nerves or hysteria.

The episode’s cuter innovation is to bring two inseparable friends, Leigh and Niamh, both 18 and from Athenry, and see if they can be separated. Niamh, who describes herself as lesbian and vegan, is paired with Isobel, who describes herself as bisexual and vegetarian, and somehow these differences can be bridged.

At a table nearby, the whippet thin, smartly dressed and magnificently coiffed Leigh is paired with his reflection. Actually, it’s Samuel, whose resemblance is only passing (Leigh, forever primping and preening, might have been happier with the mirror), and whose idiosyncrasies are initially adorable (his celebrity crush is Leo Varadker, which just seems innocent, until you realise it might be for ideological reasons).

Far more than the easy compatibility of Niamh and Isobel, who talk politics, relationships and seize Taylor Swift as a model of long-term monogamy, Leigh and Samuel’s date is a slow-motion car wreck. It has all the rapport of an entry-level job interview conducted through a foreign language.

“What do you feel is your best quality?” asks Leigh, chin in hand, waiting patiently to volunteer several of his own. “I do think you’re a bit infatuated with yourself,” Sam offers, not without reason, but terser than necessary. “I don’t want to be mean.” Leigh takes it in stride. “I’m so chill, I don’t even care.”

Their date can’t end fast enough, which is why the show strings it out for as long as possible, giddily aware that this is what it looks like when magic is happening.

Against this seething, incandescent grandeur of deep mutual loathing, you almost miss the fact that Niamh and Isobel have happily split the check and agreed to be mates, or, after an otherwise encouraging evening, that larger-than-life Jackie has rejected Joey for one simple reason: she is too tall for him.

This may be roundly contradicted by casual observation, all forms of measurement and a loose acquaintance with reality, but no matter. Some things just weren’t meant to be. And as any franchise dating show knows, there are plenty more fish in the sea.