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The pandemic has split us into two distinct camps: The Couples vs The Singles

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In the year 2020 we have split into two distinct camps: The Couples vs The Singles. Lockdown may breed contempt, with all that pent-up anger kneaded into piles of unnecessary banana bread. We’ve heard how couples are gritting their teeth and trying to prevent a mug of “prison napalm” (boiling water and sugar) being thrown into a partner’s face over breakfast, but spare a thought for the singles.

The debauchery and decadence of Love Island seems as shocking as Pasolini’s Saló in 2020

This year has become a Love Logan’s Run, with everyone furiously trying to couple up before another lockdown. Otherwise they risk being hermetically sealed inside the apartments they can’t afford, hopelessly scrolling through dating apps and considering the attractiveness of another Dennis Nilsen lookalike.

These days, dating shows look as antiquated as the average period drama. Imagine a real person to communicate with instead of a football with drawn-on eyes. Elaborate dinners and nervous butterflies are relics of the past. Illicit one-night stands are viewed with all the distaste and judgment that’s usually reserved for a documentary on dogging. The debauchery and decadence of Love Island seems as shocking as Pasolini’s Saló now.

New show First Love (Monday, Virgin Media One) works against the sacred maxim of singleton lockdown: “Do Not Text Your Ex”, with its frankly terrifying premise – parachuting an old lover back into their unsuspecting ex’s life and watching the madness unfold. It’s a slightly risky concept that they attempt to disguise as a heartwarming First Dates-type affair. The forced chirpy strings of the soundtrack try to assure viewers that everything is fine, this is not stalking or a depressing reminder that if you don’t “settle” for anyone you might be forced back into the nightmare of the past.

We begin with the story of Dubliner Michael, a would-be actor and full-time showboater. His tale of lost love is a common one of immaturity and the youthful allure of self-annihilation through alcohol. Now the improved Michael, hopped up on meditation and “zen” is ready to win back Catriona, the object of his affection who has relegated him to the friend zone. The show chugs along in a playful manner as Catriona admonishes Michael at dinner, but any interesting results fizzle out over cocktails. Elsewhere, forgotten lovers Michael and Dylan reminisce about dating rites of passage such as blacking out, cleaning up vomit and a first kiss that turned into an accidental headbutt. The real relationship which First Love seems most concerned with is Ireland’s dubious one with drinking.

The emotional core of the episode comes with the story of 56-year-old Galwegian Franny, who embodies the unspoken loneliness of a generation of Irish men. Moving from a life in the army to construction sites in Manchester, he inhabited a thoroughly masculine world free from the easy blossoming of relationships through community and friendships. He endeavours to reconnect with Manchester girl Yasmin, a smart-talking fashion maven who made an indelible impression on him back when they regularly played snooker in Moss Side’s Irish Centre. Although Franny never tried to ignite a relationship with Yasmin he ponders over what might have been.

There is a vulnerability and fragility to Franny’s story that makes him empathetic but also raises important questions about the idea of taking refuge in the past. There is a danger of being lost in the daydream of another life. When the pair finally meet in Dubai (where Yasmin lives a rather glamorous life as a photographer) she greets him from behind her giant shades, asking through her blindingly white teeth, “How are you? And more importantly who are you?” like a celebrity meeting a civilian.

This awkward exchange, with Franny’s reaction hidden beneath a rictus grin, is as soul-destroying as watching Ralph Wiggum’s heart combust after Lisa’s rejection in The Simpsons. It feels all too real, a private embarrassment that shouldn’t be seen on camera and a painful warning that people don’t remain stuck in the amber of other’s memories. First Love acts as a balm for couples conjoined on the couch to remind them that things could always be worse.

Polar opposites Elliot and Poppy on Just One Night. Photograph: Lion TV
Polar opposites Elliot and Poppy on Just One Night. Photograph: Lion TV

On the other side of the dating tundra, Just One Night (Tuesday, BBC One) offers the fantasy of the “free pass” to cosy couples. It’s another convoluted dating show device to test those who have come of age in the overstimulated world of apps and endless choice. The show is a distilled version of Love Island’s brutal Casa Amor challenge, where couples are free to go on a date with a stranger to see if sparks fly. The added twist is that on Just One Night the couples get to see each other’s dates and look on in horror as they arrive to whisk their partners away like a sexy Disney villain. It’s a TOWIE-style interpretation of the psycho-sexual mind games of Eyes Wide Shut. Youngsters Elliot and Poppy are in their relationship infancy which is full of terrible TikTok dance routines, matching oversized sweatsuits and chats about who is their ‘‘ideal type on paper”. They are polar lifestyle opposites, with extrovert Elliot partial to “a bev” and raving the night away while teetotal Poppy catches up on her sleep.

Although there is nothing for Elliot to worry about when potential life-ruiner Edward appears in the bar. Dressed in a brocade bomber jacket and sporting distracting facial hair, this Asos version of the Laughing Cavalier has yet to take his seat before he announces “I go to the gym five or six times a week” as if to make an excuse for his lack of charisma. “Do you go to the gym?” he demands, inspecting Poppy’s body like an assistant in a morgue. It makes you pine for the simpler days of Take Me Out and its cheerily dehumanising “No likey, no lighty” rating system. The trend of fitness as the currency of modern dating is about as interesting as coffee being used as a personality substitute.

The show would be more successful if it expanded over two nights as it’s doubtful anyone would consider ditching their relationship after a couple of hours with a stranger, no matter how many times they’ve been to the gym that week. The carefree singletons act as relationship counsellors, doling out love advice to tired couples, rather than posing any real threat, which means the supposedly romantic dinners never take the shape of a real date.

Just One Night is the single life seen through the eyes of those who want to eradicate the staleness of routine. It’s a confidence boost for singletons, who are cast as the alluring, disruptive guest stars, there to spice things up. It also gives the couples involved a much-needed injection of desire to avoid the monotony of monogamy. In the dystopian death match of The Couples vs The Singles, sometimes the grass can look greener on either side of the fence.

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