A Year to Fall in Love: like a last-chance trolley dash on Supermarket Sweep

Reality TV: Channel 4’s dating show teaches us that none of us know what we’re doing

If Love Island is the Cube of romantic reality shows – an obstacle course of organs and coupling challenges and attempts to avoid toxicity – A Year to Fall in Love, with its title that sounds like a veiled threat, feels like a frantic last-chance trolley dash on Supermarket Sweep as dearly departed Dale Winton taps his watch. A time limit for true romance a time limit is a daunting prospect.

Channel 4 is no stranger to the dating game, having tried everything from wife swapping and marrying at first sight to getting people to flaunt their wobbly bits on Naked Attraction. That makes A Year to Fall in Love sound positively antiquated. The series, which began on Wednesday, follows 20 singletons over 12 months to see if they find romance and observe how traditional ways of meeting potential suitors stack up against the convenience of technology. It turns out the people it has chosen aren't lying on their sofas, despairing about their prospects, but treating their mission like an aggressive job hunt.

'How about you and I go on an adventure?' Nick types, which sounds like something a serial killer would say before he locked you in a basement

Freddy, a young Londoner, doesn’t use dating apps: he’s suspicious about how much of what people say about themselves online is fictional, and regards the endless swiping and ghosting as lazy. He prefers the direct route, such as attempting to make conversation with a fellow Tube passenger – the startled woman looks ready to throw herself on the tracks rather than make small talk with a stranger. Later he talks about wanting to hook up with Jasmine, a friend of three years, at a party. She is more receptive, and the two seem to make a smooth transition into coupledom.

The same cannot be said for Nick, a hapless Welsh 26-year-old who has had no success on dating apps. “How about you and I go on an adventure?” he types as a second message to the lucky recipient when his first attempt goes unanswered. This second question yields the same silence, possibly because it sounds like something a serial killer would say before he locked you in a basement.

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Poor Nick tries his best, and his profile photographs are relatively normal – certainly less disturbing than the kind that show people posing in front of damp walls and oily extractor fans in dimly lit bedsits, or the ones that are actually from the poster’s wedding.

Just as you're beginning to feel sympathy for him he decides to track down a woman on Facebook whom he once spoke to about perhaps going to a food festival. When she fails to reply he asks his friends for advice (a huge mistake). They tell him to ring the number she gave him, which is not her own but her friend's. "Oh, I think she gave me your number by mistake, or maybe I gave her the wrong number. Can you pass this one on, then?" he stutters. This might be seen as sweet, bumbling behaviour in a Richard Curtis film. In real life it makes you cringe.

Niki ends up in a graphic female-only WhatsApp group whose members share distracting headless-torso shots but never actually speak to each other

Niki, who is 33, has been on 30 dates in the past year. She was ill throughout her 20s and is determined to make up for lost time. She’s open to dating men and women and ends up in a graphic female-only WhatsApp group whose members share distracting headless-torso shots but never actually speak to each other. (The impersonal, isolating nature of social media and modern dating is something that Xander, another of the participants, also finds disappointing; the 22-year-old sums up the gay dating app Grindr as “ dick pic first, questions later”. He wants to take things slowly and finds the expectation of immediate sex off-putting.)

After Niki’s first date with a woman ends unhappily, she asks out her tennis instructor, Arthur. As they lie on a bed together, pouting for the cameras, you get a distinct feeling that she’s yearning for the Instagrammable idea of the perfect relationship, with its images of cosy nights in or supposedly candid photograph with the cliched caption #thisone beneath it. Arthur leaves after a day and doesn’t call again. Niki then goes on a two-day date with an intense older man who ends up punching a wall and continually calling to ask if she loves him. In her determination to put herself out there Niki opens herself up to the dark side of dating.

At the end of the episode Nick seems to have found someone. Federica, a charming Italian student, doesn’t seem to mind him referring to their hand-holding as bodily contact (*shudders*). But after spending a month seeing each other he friend-zones her in case someone “better” comes along. The trumping of the person in front of you by the supposedly infinite choice offered by modern dating is creating a lonely world where the idea will always be better than the reality.

If A Year to Fall in Love teaches us anything it's that none of us know what we're doing. Whether online or in real life, we still act like bluebottles bumping into each other, hoping to find that escape route to happiness.