Since The Bachelor debuted in 2002, most dating shows have fallen into a similar pattern of one candidate surrounded by a variety of suitors. That format’s been expanded somewhat to include the “throw a bunch of hot people together in an idyllic setting” category—shows like Paradise Hotel, Too Hot To Handle, Bachelor In Paradise, Love Island, etc. 12 Dates Of Christmas, HBO Max’s new addition to reality dating, falls somewhere between those two setups: Three singles look for love among a rotating cast of dating options while hiding away in a castle in Austria.
Sam Dean, who produced Netflix’s popular, somewhat innovative reality dating series Love Is Blind, serves as executive producer and showrunner for 12 Dates, whose three leads are looking for a nearly perfect stranger who they’ll be able to take home for the holidays. There’s Faith, a woman searching for a man; Chad, a man searching for a woman; and Garrett, a man searching for a man, a still woefully underexplored journey in reality television. In 2020, it shouldn’t feel so revolutionary to see a man wooed by a variety of male suitors on a mainstream dating series, but somehow, it does, and Garrett’s journey turns out to be the most riveting of the three. (Hint: He hasn’t been home at all in two years.) Many of the 12 Dates participants are people of color, so the show does not appear as lily-white as these series often do.
Also, instead of a multitude of suitors, Faith, Chad, and Garrett usually juggle only three dates at a time. This leads to a lot more valuable one-on-one time for their respective courtships. Every week, two of the dates get “presents”; the one who doesn’t has to leave the castle, and soon enough, a new slot of suitors enters the lineup, often in a surprising fashion (one of Garrett’s dates jumps out of a cake). Meanwhile, the castle is host to group events like a masquerade ball, a karaoke carol session, and an ugly-sweater party. Because everyone isn’t after the same person, alliances and friendships are easily formed across the various dating pods, as well as between the three leads (Faith and Garrett rightly tease Chad about just how many people he kisses in the castle).
Best of all, Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell offers the same kind of amusing voice-over commentary heard on Netflix reality shows like Too Hot To Handle and The Circle, but a lot funnier. Rothwell is the audience stand-in: She’s watching all of this while drinking wine and eating popcorn just like the rest of us, self-deprecatingly poking fun at her own love life. She offers commentary, aided by hindsight, like, “Oh, a masked ball! Or as you say in 2020, a ball.” During the admittedly painful karaoke session, she quips, “Oh hang on, I think my ears just threw up!” And even if Rothwell’s one-liners begin to falter, there’s still the pleasure of watching spectacularly good-looking people go skiing and sledding in an idyllic, picturesque pre-COVID winter.
That karaoke party, unfortunately, is not an outlier; not every social gathering is a resounding success. Too many of the intimate hot tub conversations feature circular dialogue like, “I’m so happy to get to talk to you,” “I know, I’m so glad we’re talking right now”—which is a given on most reality dating series. Even that old chestnut about wondering if a certain someone is there for the “right reasons” gets tossed around. But for the most part, the leads seem to have a good handle on who they are and are not interested in, and effectively weed out the inevitably drama-fueled toxic interlopers; when confused, the three of them meet up to get some valuable outside perspective and moral support. The fluidity of the dating pools also allows for some interesting crossover. At one point, one of the leads generously keeps someone around because they know that the person is interested in developing a relationship with someone else in the castle. A few of the suitors are people the leads have met before in the outside world, adding intrigue to their romantic chances.
In the end, though, 12 Dates asks the same question that all of these shows do: Can anyone really find true love on a reality dating show? At least 12 Dates adds a bit of a coda toward the end of its eight episodes, wherein the couples have to actually talk about what their lives could look like together. It’s one thing to craft a snowman together on an Austrian hillside; it’s quite another to move across the country and uproot your life to be with someone you’ve only known a short while. All the contestants acknowledge that the castle was like a “fairy tale”; the real lessons come from what they learned there about each other and themselves. They’re all a-twinkle in the midst of the holiday season, but what actually happens on January 2? This rude awakening of a follow-up makes 12 Dates Of Christmas more grounded than many of its contemporaries, even as its opulent setting provides welcome escapist fare for those whose holiday season may be less than festive this year.