Is there such a thing as The One? It’s an age-old question posed by the polished new Netflix show of the same name about a dating world where DNA pairing offers the answer to finding your ideal romantic pairing, too.
Based on John Marrs’ 2017 novel, The One is an eight-parter that pivots around CEO Rebecca Webb, whose matchmaking service is based on DNA science. “We deserve the fairytale,” she tells a rapt audience at the start. “No one has to settle anymore. I have loaded the dice, everyone gets to roll a six.”
This being a thriller, and a dark one at that, the fairytale soon turns for several central characters.
The quest for a perfect match isn’t new to TV, of course, propelling the plots of countless rom coms, dating reality shows, and dramas. (Nor is fiddling with DNA to achieve implausible results unprecedented – Jurassic Park, anyone?). In Amazon Prime’s parallel sci-fi serial, Soulmates, the discovery of a “soul particle” also enables a test people can take to find their perfect partner.
Howard Overman, creator of The One and sci-fi E4 comedy-drama, Misfits, before it, says he was already curious about the rise of genetic-based dating apps before he read Marrs’ book, “and even though I’m a bit of a luddite”.
And it seems audiences are hooked, too, with the show tending top of Netflix with UK viewers a week after release.
“I guess the central idea was: we look to science to solve problems medically, and we look to it in terms of meeting people, with Tinder and those sorts of apps, but the one place we haven’t looked to it for is how we are connecting with those people,” Overman tells HuffPost UK.
“If science can solve all these other problems should we look to science to solve one of the biggest problems, which is meeting our life partners, and can it help us do that?”
The notion isn’t 100% science fiction. Several startups already claim to use genetic testing to matchmake – though many critics call it pseudoscience.
“The very short answer is no, these apps that are based on finding a partner through your DNA are not worth people’s time,” says Turi King, Professor of Public Engagement and Genetics at the University of Leicester. “Our DNA is only part of who we are and our personalities are shaped by numerous other factors alongside our DNA.”
Test or no test, the idea of “the one” has a strong pull on us. But therapists caution against a narrative that can be reductive at best, toxic at worst. When it plays out as torturous wishful thinking, it can limit our approach to finding – or keeping – a partner by suggesting that happiness lies just around the corner, if only we keep on looking.
“I think it really restricts people’s mindsets,” says Laurele Mitchell from the Counselling Directory, who encourages her clients to approach the idea of relationships with an “abundance” rather than “scarcity” philosophy.
“We peddle this message that everything’s scarce. Now, some things are, but people aren’t,” she says. “It you take it to its logical conclusion mathematically it does seem a bit ridiculous that there’s only one person in the world for us.”
Even when you have a partner, thinking about “the one” can be unhelpful. “The enormous pressure it puts on one person to be everything to that other person,” sighs Mitchell. “It also leads to a huge dissatisfaction with the person you’re with. That chronic sense of ‘is there somebody better?’”
This approach can also make it harder to feel satisfied in and of yourself, she adds, fuelling the idea that meeting someone else could just make for an improved version of you. The reality is usually more modest, says Mitchell.
“That myth of the soulmate, the other half, is narrow and restrictive. We don’t apply that to our friendships, they’re much more open and expansive.”
A good relationship should simply involve “two individuals who come together to form a unit which is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts”, she says. “That myth of the soulmate, the other half, is narrow and restrictive. We don’t apply that to our friendships, they’re much more open and expansive.”
For Cath Foster, a counsellor and psychotherapist who specialised in queer relationships, “the one” starts from a firmly heteronormative base. “It’s that idea of relationships: you meet when you’re 15, you marry at 17 and have children and that’s how society runs. It really fits into that old-fashioned view.”
While there are more visible alternative relationships and lifestyles now, from open relationships and polyamory to “alonement” philosophies for single life, popular culture is still catching up, and is slow to let go of its addictions.
“Look at TV, look at music,” says Foster. “We still have this idea of love at first sight, meeting this perfect person who you’re going to be with until you’re 90 and you’ll be together forever. It’s a romantic ideal, but I think actually for a lot of people that pressure is there. Particularly if they feel like a real romantic soul.”
If MatchDNA, the dating site in The One, were reality, would people sign up?
“Oh god yeah!” reckons Overman. “It’d be huge wouldn’t it. I’m married and things like Tinder weren’t really around when I was dating, but if you look how many young people use them, if there was a version of that which wasn’t just swiping left or right, but promised to provide you with a biological match you had a huge biological connection with, I think people would lap it up.”