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'Dates': The Silhouette Of Something Great

06/07/2013 16:19 BST | Updated 05/09/2013 10:12 BST

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I saw rather a funny piece of graffiti on the Tube a couple of years ago. On an advert for a dating website, there was a picture of a lady in a red dress saying: "When he texted me before our date, I got the good sort of butterflies in my tummy." Under this, a wag with a pen had written: "And then I pooed myself a little."

Oh, dates. Dates! They can be lovely, they can be bloody awful, though usually they're in the anecdote-unfriendly hinterland somewhere in between. But dates are like snowflakes and there's still something uniquely, grimly fascinating in each one: the gauche exchanges, the silence-filling laughter, the hunt-in-the-head for questions. Online dating, especially, is an ever-evolving leviathan, sloughing its stigmas like old skin and sprouting new heads like Tinder. Someone at Channel 4 spotted this and they now have an entire Mating Season. Hooray!

Amongst the fixed-rig agony of fly-on-the-restaurant-wall First Dates (replete with conspiratorial chats in the ladies loo) and a strangely Watchdog-esque froth-doc from newly-Irish Dawn O'Porter about the perils of an insecure Wifi connection, Mating Season's flagship is the nine-part drama Dates, which finished this week and has a premise so ingeniously simple you wonder why it hasn't been done before.

Each episode depicts a date between two characters. Limiting itself to a single evening (and sometimes the morning after), the show almost feels like a series of short, interlocking plays, Alan Ayckbourn in a minor key. The narrative architecture of the series hints, too, at the literary likes of Jennifer Egan: the recurrence of the same characters in later eps reveals unexpected traits and symmetries, a device Dominic Savage used in last year's excellent True Love. Each episode is a double character-sketch, a little diptych, in which a third party tends to loom over the pair (an ex-partner; someone they fancy more; a waiter; a son), and the series adds up to a broad-canvas, Bruegel the Elder-type panorama of contemporary, lust-riven woes.

Some characters work better than others. The undoubted star is Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie. Her character Mia, a photo negative of her role as Dominic West's wife in The Hour, is a brittle, callous, Sloane mockingbird. When I watched the first episode, her first date with widower Yorkshire lorry-driver David (Will Mellor), I can't remember the last time I loathed a television character as much as her, but the mesmerizing Chaplin, somehow, keeps you rooting for her. Ben Chaplin (no relation to Oona, thankfully) is also rather good as poshboy roué-doctor Stephen, while Sheridan Smith is both sweet and unnerving as klepto primary school teacher Jenny. Ryan Sampson is cleverly cast as a waiter, the Chekhov's gun of a familiar-face-in-a-seemingly-small-part, in the second episode, perhaps the best one of the lot. Will Mellor's David, on the other hand, felt slightly too close to the stock decent-until-I-lose-my-temper Yorkshireman, though parallels were nicely developed between his character and Ben Chaplin's in the last episode.

There is some extremely good dramatic writing here, especially those moments where characters reveal more than they intend to. There's a particularly potent bit where Sheridan Smith is in bed with her date (I won't reveal who!) and what starts as a poignant, perfectly reasonable articulation of a simple wish for a husband and a house becomes a desperate, bitter, slightly unhinged yearning for the ex-fiancé who dumped her. Comedy is rare, but very welcome ("What were you listening to? A story?", Mia asks Stephen's teenage son, a touch condescendingly. "In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg" comes the reply).

However, the rhythm of the writing is a tad uneven from ep to ep. The dialogue in the club between Erica (Gemma Chan) and Kate (Katie McGrath) is a bit softcore porn, Erica's date with Callum (Greg McHugh) becomes a fairly tiresome "stand up for who are" fable quite quickly, and in a key scene in the last ep, there's some rather heavy-handed imagery about Jenga towers and building things just to watch them fall down ("What's the point of that?" asks Stephen's son).

Indeed, by the end, even the stronger characters' stories start to run out of steam. For a show as necessarily nuanced as Dates and in this age of Netflix, this might well be because it was spread out over too many nights and weeks: it was a far punchier viewing experience the week four went out on consecutive nights (as all five episodes of True Love did); less so when only twice a week (Lewis made a similar mistake when they split the show into two-part, hour-long episodes). But definitely worth a binge now they're all up on 4oD.

Dates has the silhouette of something genuinely great. Its credentials are impeccable - writerly, state-of-the-zeitgeist pedigree (showrunner Bryan Elsley also created Skins, which has just got going again for a final season), an ambitious less-is-more conceit, canny casting, horribly authentic cat-and-mouse dialogue, and occasional moments of real power. It's all just a bit less than the some of its parts. It lacks a certain patience, a broader sense of subtlety, a holding-back of twists, a resistance to melodrama, and the masterful ambiguity of, say, Alan Bennett's Talking Heads or Hugo Blick's Marion and Geoff that could have made it a modern classic.