These shows are largely dystopian. As is “Made for Love,” a mordant comedy on HBO Max that imagines a microchip that would provide access to all of your partner’s sensory data, a surveillance tool dressed up as a dream of perfect union. Each endorses an idea that goes all the way back to Plato’s “Symposium” — that there is a person out there for each of us and that to meet that other half is to experience instant, permanent attachment. Here’s how Plato puts it: “The pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and would not be out of the other’s sight.”
These series arrive when the reach of the internet and the broad acceptance of online dating means that the unchlorinated pool of eligible mates has never been deeper. When you can match with anyone, anywhere (apparently not everyone sees the relationships on a show like “90 Day Fiancé” as clear deterrents), it is harder to know when to stop swiping. At the same time, the expectations for marriage — at least in the affluent West — which demand that a spouse be your co-CEO and your slam piece and your best friend/therapist/guru have never seemed more overwhelming. The technology in these shows guarantees suitability, removing the anxiety that you have settled for good enough when even better is just around the 5G corner.
My husband and I separated over the winter. He was a lousy guru, I guess. Or I was a mediocre slam piece. Or the predictable stressors of family life messed with our otherwise compatible genes. At some point, when I am fully vaccinated and have shaved my legs below the knee, I will download a dating app. But I was never much good at dating. Spitting into a tube and matching with a ride-or-die does sound awfully convenient. There’s a “Black Mirror” episode, “Hang the DJ,” from 2017, in which an avatar does the dating for you, and I would absolutely pay a premium for it.
But while these shows can imagine such tech, they take convenient shortcuts. The matches shown are uniformly attractive, age-appropriate. Differences in background or class sometimes arise, but the telegenic oomph makes up for it. Impediments beyond preexisting relationships are few. Should you leave your handsome husband for your beautiful match as in the “Soulmates” episode “Little Adventures?” What if your perfect match is already married, as is often the case in “The One?” What do you do when your match is already deceased, as happens in both shows?
This limited make-believe means that “The One” and “Soulmates” ignore the potential for comedy or even much in the way of nuance. (“Made for Love,” which enjoys its absurdism, offers more joy.) Let’s just say that if my chromosomes paired me with a nonagenarian or a gun nut or a farmer somewhere in the Urals, issues might present. I can also imagine that plenty of men, if matched with me, a nearsighted mother of two with an impressive collection of reusable grocery bags, might think, “What even is DNA?”
It is radical, at least in a structural sense, to take the endpoint of so much other entertainment — finding true love — and make it the starting line. But “The One” and “Soulmates,” which was renewed for a second season, don’t feel radical. They feel like vacations where it rains every day. That’s in part because the target of their cynicism is so huge and neon obvious. Big Tech might not know what’s best for us? A microchip doesn’t guarantee domestic bliss? You don’t say. These shows elide the idea that there might be many ones and multiple soul mates. They also mostly ignore the contrariness of human psychology and how we often don’t want what or whom we should. I remember the dinner dates of my 20s, with appropriate and eligible men — dates spent wondering how deeply I would have to stab myself with a fork just to end them early.
“Made for Love” traffics in the same Big Tech contempt. Billy Magnussen’s Byron, a Jobsian savant, believes that he has optimized his relationship with his wife, Cristin Milioti’s Hazel, using tech to perfect sleep, exercise, nutrition, even her orgasms. Then again, the microchip actually helps: It’s only through losing her, and seeing the world through her eyes (literally), that he comes to know her at all. Still, there’s a low-tech workaround for that — baseline empathy.
If the science in “The One” or “Soulmates” were real and effective, we could all live like medieval princelings, betrothed pretty much from birth. Or in a “Made for Love” world, we could use wearable tech to merge with any available beloved. Our romantic lives would be effortless, frictionless. No frog. All prince.
But love is more than biometrics and compatibility questionnaires. Dating the wrong people teaches us something about who we are and what we desire and how to behave when a right person texts us back. Because it isn’t so easy to fall in love and stay there. It takes work and time and some degree of self-knowledge and a consistent practice of compassion. There’s no app for that. Yet. Maybe that’s a good thing.
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