What Dethroned Seinfeld at 11? TV’s Love Sensation, Blind Date !

On a recent Thursday night at 11 p.m., two Angelenos named Jeremy and Martita were meeting for the first time over on Channel 9. He was a confessed sperm donor with the annoying habit of saying "dude" every few seconds; she had the half-wary, half-perky mien of Janeane Garofalo, circa 1994. By the end of their evening, Martita was also saying "dude" every few seconds; Jeremy, meanwhile, had tumbled into a duck pond and then streaked naked past a rapidly fleeing Martita in a futile attempt to get her phone number. A brief post-date analysis–Martita "just wasn’t up to the same party level as me," concluded Jeremy–then cut to a commercial for Valtrex, a herpes medication.

It was just another episode of Blind Date , the new, secret, 11 p.m., post-prime-time, pre-Letterman indulgence of many smart New Yorkers, who temper their shame about watching with the smug knowledge that, while they may not enjoy the Jacuzzis, terraces and open highways of the bronzed Californians who frequent the show, at least they have their dignity. Though perhaps not for long: Recently, five dates were taped in Manhattan (the first will air Nov. 13), and according to an executive producer, David Garfinkle, there are plans to install a bureau here sometime next year.

"I can’t take my eyes off it," said Heather Cook, a 27-year-old Upper East Sider who works in public relations and watches Blind Date almost nightly. "I absolutely love it. And I’m not sure which I like better: when they actually hate each other and are mean to each other, or when they’re getting it on in the hot tub. Because you don’t know which is more pathetic."

Unlike its cultural predecessors The Dating Game and Love Connection, with their coy bachelorettes and scrims, Blind Date actually incorporates the contempt of its viewers into its format, with scathing Pop-Up Video -style thought bubbles appearing over the hapless contestants’ heads. Which might explain why those who miss the dark, cynical enthusiasms of the dearly departed 11 p.m. Seinfeld reruns have found a home of sorts with Blind Date. And in contrast to Love Connection ‘s avuncular Chuck Woolery, who would gently debrief his quarry on a couch, Blind Date host Roger Lodge doesn’t even meet his guests on the air. Indeed, he mocks them.

"It’s very simple," said Mr. Lodge from his home in the Valley. "I just set ‘em up and get out of the way."

Each couple travels to their date in one of the show’s signature Ford Expeditions, which are outfitted with interior "lipstick cams." About 20 percent of the dates are successful; often, they take it to the next level and plunge, in bathing suits or less, into a hot tub.

"I like to watch it because it makes you feel better about yourself, that you would never in your life be as pathetic as those people," said Ms. Cook. "To me, they are all struggling actors. I’m sure they’re all waitresses, or hostesses." New Yorkers who themselves go on more blind dates than perhaps they would like can take comfort in the show. Ms. Cook said that after watching Blind Date , she would be more willing to give it a shot in real life. "My God, it can’t be any worse than what I saw on TV last night," she said. "As long as you’re watching that show, you’re one step up."

Blind Date debuted on Sept. 20, 1999. In the New York area the show currently commands a Nielsen rating of between 2 and 3, or about 187,000 households nightly. But the Nielsens are somewhat irrelevant: In an era of "appointment television," Blind Date is the polar opposite–it is "pop-in television." One happens upon it when one is idly clicking around from the local news to Charlie Rose to the latest rerun of Friends . "You don’t have to keep track of any characters," said Darby Saxbe, a 23-year-old Internet recruiter from the Upper East Side. "You can tune in 15 minutes into the show, and you didn’t miss anything. Part of Blind Date ‘s charm is that it airs on the cozily cheap Channel 9, which despite hits like Moesha has not managed to elevate itself to the status of "the WB," Channel 11. And Channel 9 retains a nostalgic hold on the hearts of New Yorkers who grew up with the channel as the home to the Mets, black-and-white horror movies and other fuzzy, unslick fare.

Moreover, unlike appointment television–such as Sex and the City or Survivor, which is often watched in taxing, festive groups– Blind Date tends to be absorbed furtively, guiltily. Solo. "I generally watch it alone," said John Sellers, 30, a Brooklyn resident who used to write for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. "I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I like it. I did notice a lot of women with fake breasts on it; that’s pretty cool. Just kidding! I don’t like women with fake breasts; I think it’s really, really tacky." Manhattanites who succumb to Blind Date experience a double voyeurism: the simple thrill of watching people make out on camera and the more complex pleasure of seeing an alien dating world, where people go pogo-stick jumping, strawberry picking and take part in other wholesome activities selected by the producers. Then there are the frothy drinks in a very un-New York spacious restaurant, where the couple gets complete privacy in a roomy booth. (That is, if you don’t count the four-person camera crew recording their every move.) "They’re always driving some place," marveled Jenette Restivo, a 27-year-old New Yorker who works for About.com. "We don’t drive anywhere. They’re always going on these fun little jaunts, like race-car driving. The women are always so superficial, so self-centered, everybody is out for self-promotion. The men are always out for one thing, and it shocks me how many times the night ends up in that. I watch that show and say, ‘I don’t want to be part of that culture.’ It’s fun to watch it, but I don’t want to be part of it." Ms. Restivo’s boyfriend, a banker, does not watch Blind Date . "I think it’s a private experience," she said.

"It’s a weird combination of envy and total superiority," said Ms. Saxbe, the Internet recruiter. "A lot of it is just an excuse to look at good-looking young people frolicking around and doing exciting things that, as a young person, I should probably be doing as opposed to watching TV. I always feel a little guilty, because they’re out at nightclubs and having dinner with strangers and stuff like that, and here I am sitting at home on a couch." But, she said, "the show is ridiculous. The excuses that it makes to show especially female flesh–like the episode where she was painting using her breasts. There’s a girl in a bikini in her hot tub at the end of every episode! L.A. is the perfect place for that kind of thing to happen."

But New York? One might expect the Blind Date formula to collapse once transposed to Manhattan, what with its crowded public spaces and pronounced absence of hot tubs. Indeed, in rough cuts of two upcoming New York episodes, the Gotham couples had to fight to be heard in noisy restaurants (Tavern on the Green?), and each couple spent part of the evening at Chelsea Piers, perhaps the city’s most Los Angeles-like venue, with its cavernous, sporty, tacky ambiance. Asked if there was a different flavor to the Manhattan contestants, Mr. Lodge said: "I noticed a lot less … hmmm, what’s the correct word? They’re just more direct, you know. If it wasn’t working out, somebody usually brought that up. In L.A., I’ve seen dates where the girl will totally make out with the guy and then at the end of the date say ‘Oh, I’m not interested.’ In New York, they’re much more direct and to the point." Mr. Garfinkle, the Blind Date producer, said that New York singles make for great copy. "New Yorkers are definitely out there ," he said. "They’re willing to express themselves, and for our show that really works well. With two people who have a strong point of view and a strong attitude, that’s where the best fireworks happen."

Not every New Yorker has embraced Blind Date . Tad Low, who created Pop-Up Video for VH1, called Blind Date ‘s creators "huge rip-off artists" for poaching his show’s peppily deconstructive technique. "It speaks to a larger issue," said Mr. Low, "which is how derivative and sad all this television is that comes from the West Coast. Like typical sun-stroked Californians, they can’t muster any inventive content at all. I don’t know what’s sadder on that show, the sorry specimens they choose to follow–which, by the way, are mostly hookers and actors; they’re not real people, they’re just people hoping to put a reel together so that they can get an agent–or the on-screen commentary that the show’s writers think is so funny. To me, watching Southern Californians make fun of other Southern Californians is like forcing lobotomized mental patients to take the SAT’s!"

And will the New Yorkers who currently adore the show stay loyal if it starts to poke fun at New Yorkers’ own dating habits, which tend to be more grim and humorless and fraught than the West Coast version? "It’s fun that it’s out in L.A.," said Mr. Sellers. "You can see how dumb the people are out there; they pretty much are all pretty stupid, and they’re all like ‘party people.’ That’s not to say that there aren’t a hell of a lot of dumb people in New York, but …" Mr. Sellers added that he has a girlfriend, but that she doesn’t watch Blind Date . She prefers Law & Order .