Based on an popular series in Britain, “First Dates” (debuting 7 p.m. Friday, WMAQ-Channel 5) likely will bring back memories — both good and bad — for anyone who ever went on a blind date. The first episode includes a few awkward moments, like when Kenny learned Christina had been in the U.S. Navy and said, “You’re so pretty, for somebody in the military.” His irritated date zinged back with, “What? I’m supposed to be butch?”
Then there’s the apparent “player,” Mike, who stunned his date, Alyssa (a serial dater and Tinder aficionado), when she learned he’s a virgin at age 23.
There also is a sweet connection between two Seattle techies, David and Annie, even though she was clearly shocked he still has an app-less flip phone that’s more than a decade old.
The “First Dates” concept brings together real-life singles from across the country to meet at Chicago’s MK restaurant and see if there’s a connection.
“It’s a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach, that I hadn’t remembered in a while, as I’ve been married for 15 years. But you come to realize it’s still there in all of us — mostly a sense of impending doom,” producer John Hesling said with a laugh. “Of course, there also can be impending joy, depending on the moment or the situation.”
To the “First Dates” producing team, which includes TV megastar Ellen DeGeneres. the locale was obviously key.
“We gave a lot of thought to that,” said Hesling. “Chicago is very representative of America. It has its own identity, but it’s not an aggressive identity in the way some other cities can be — like New York, for example. We felt it was a brilliant, centralized meeting point to fly people in from all over America,” he added.
As for the selection of Michael Kornick’s MK restaurant on North Franklin, Hesling pointed out that as they researched potential sites, “we saw that MK consistently made various lists of the most romantic restaurants in Chicago. After meeting with the team there, we knew that was the perfect spot for us.
“Sometimes, people can make terrible miscues on their first dates — by taking someone to a place that is too fancy, or too obsessed with what it is and who it is, or with the celebrity chef who is behind it, and all that sort of thing. MK wasn’t that. It served very good food in a nice, warm, romantic atmosphere, and that was the reason we chose it.”
Hesling recognizes the involvement of DeGeneres in the project as a true godsend. “She was involved early on. She’s not only a force of nature, she’s a force for good. One of the many great things about this project was having her stamp of approval.
“People would see Ellen’s name attached to it and realized this wasn’t going to be some kind of setup, ‘Candid Camera,’ gotcha kind of situation, where they would be forced to do ridiculous things. Frankly, we had people applying to be in this series who normally never would have gotten involved if we didn’t have Ellen’s name attached to it.
“Because of that, we had people from all walks of life — all persuasions, all ages, nationalities, races, etc., really a broad spectrum of modern America — come to us. Hats off to Ellen for that.”
That said, given this is people meeting for the first time on a blind date, Hesling admitted “there are lots of hilarious moments to see — some of them pretty cringe-worthy. But it all comes from a kind place.”
Hesling is also delighted Drew Barrymore was persuaded to serve as the narrator for the show. “She got the concept right away, and like Ellen, she has a positive view toward people. She understands it’s all of their quirks that makes them unique — and that we’re celebrating that on ‘First Dates.'”
While the series showcases all kinds of couples — young, middle-aged, older, gay, straight, and of various ethnic and racial identities — Hesling said his favorite couples on the show were those with more life experiences behind them.
“First of all, we absolutely didn’t want it to be a dating show that was all 20-somethings. I found out something that was seen on the original British series as well: The older daters were absolutely golden!
“When you’re young, and you project yourself on a date, you want to project the perfect image of who you are — or who you want people to think you are. But when you’re older, you’ve been through life. Those people don’t need to project anything false. They’re all about, ‘This is who I am. If you like me — fantastic. If you don’t, that’s fine too. We can still have a nice dinner, and have a chat about life.’ ”
In the final analysis, Hesling said, “all of us in this world are united with that very human desire to find a connection with someone. We’re social animals. We’re all looking for that one person to be on our side with whom we feel that flash of a connection.”