I ran across Blind Date by accident, as upon an accident, channel surfing in a New Orleans hotel room, and though I could have been out drinking Hurricanes or eating beignets or losing all my money at the big new casino instead, I watched it until the very end. As with any wreck on the highway, any public display of human frailty and fallibility, it was hard to look away; and many besides me seem to have had the same reaction — it’s a show you can‘t mention in a crowd, even of people you respect, without someone telling you how addicted they are to it.

Its hot concept is to show what The Dating Game only promised and Love Connection only described: the date itself. This gap was crying so loudly to be filled that it also produced the kinder, gentler A Dating Story on the Learning Channel — a show so kind and gentle that one couple said a blessing over their bowling-alley meal. (”We pray that we have a good time and get to know each other, and thank You for this opportunity.“) But unlike that program, where the pairings are suggested (as in life) by a mutual friend, and unlike The Dating Game or Love Connection, in which one party got to choose a partner, the Blind Date couple — I want to call them contestants, and in fact they frequently are — are matched by the producers, who are naturally less interested in making simple happy unions than in ensuring that something interesting happens. (”What are your most annoying habits?“ is one of the questions applicants are asked.) Participants have obviously been vetted for unselfconsciousness, liveliness and a modicum of physical attractiveness (I haven’t seen anyone really fat, or hairy, or old), though extreme self-involvement seems not to be an impediment to making the cut, and one finds oneself more often rooting for one party to get on out of there than hoping that things work out — it‘s dating as a spectator sport. The dates, two per episode and therefore much compressed, are given narrative english by host Roger Lodge, a spooky Casey Kasem clone with a George Hamilton tan that makes his lips look white, and interpreted for you via snarky Pop-Up Video–style balloons that include comments from friends and exes and have been written with evident disregard for the feelings of the subjects.

If you’re going to get anything out of this show other than a heaping helping of schadenfreude, the therapeutic effects of which I do not dispute, or the occasional sensation of warming cockles when a date by some mishap goes off splendidly, or a vicarious pheromonal thrill, you have to look through the cynical narrative overlay to the human comedy below, and consider how miraculous it is that anyone ever makes a love connection at all. This is a big world, full of little worlds full of people who are like you yet not like you at all, and, if nothing else, Blind Date affords a glimpse into their alternate realities and varied mating habits. Without actually having to get close to them.

In a more innocent age, Chuck Barris created The Dating Game and, with consummate logic, The Newlywed Game after it; they ran for a while in adjacent time slots, and their conjunction intimated an order, a certain natural progression in the course of things — first comes love, then comes marriage — with which most of the newer, sexier ”relationship shows“ are little concerned. These are different times, of course, when sleeping together is just what people do (they do it all over the TV, that‘s for damn sure) and nothing necessarily leads to anything. In spite of the frequent double-entendre, its Austin Powers swinging bachelors and bachelorettes, The Dating Game was always rather chaste — boys and girls separated by a wall, after all — and its appeal had less to do with sex than with watching ordinary people trying to be witty and charming under pressure. The show’s largeness of spirit — competing bachelors applaud one another‘s answers, the losers get hugged, the winners blow kisses — has kept it coming back across three decades: Its most recent edition, with affable Love Connection skipper Chuck Woolery at the helm and the Tijuana Brass’ ”Spanish Flea“ restored to its place of thematic glory, runs weekday afternoons on KCAL, where it is preceded by the equally resilient The Newlywed Game and followed by Change of Heart, a much stranger half-hour, in which a couple not perfectly satisfied with their relationship — or else just masochistic — agree to each go on a blind date, in the light of which they will re-evaluate the hand they hold and either stand pat or fold. It is an object lesson in tempting fate, and there is much mutual humiliation involved, and a lot of effort on the host‘s part to make it all look like both serious therapy and outrageous ”fun.“

On Crush, new from the USA Network, secret admirers reveal their deep feelings to the objects of their affection — a staple gambit of the tabloid talk shows that reached its notorious nadir (or its peak, depending on how you look at these things) in March 1995, when, on a taping of Jenny Jones, guest Jonathan Schmitz learned that Scott Amedure had a thing for him and three days later shot Amedure dead. Not even a $25 million judgment against that series could deter the brave producers of Crush from taking up the banner, though I think it is safe to assume there’ll be no same-sex surprises on this program. It borrows its basic shape from To Tell the Truth, confronting the loved one with a panel of three, each of whom tries to convince himher that theirs is the love that‘s true. But guessing right makes no difference, gamewise (though guessing wrong provides a frisson of disappointment): The real crux of the matter is whether the guest will choose to ”stay friends“ with hisher no-longer-secret admirer or, by taking that person to a hotel in Hawaii, ”become lovers.“ The show has the potential for real horror — having to tell someone who loves you you don’t love them back, not like that, is hard enough without the TV cameras, and having to hear it no easier. Yet the show is more touching than not — half an hour of young people telling each other how sweet and nice and smart and funny and easy to talk to they are — and the participants, though many are tarted up for the camera, are on the whole refreshingly regular.

After (or perhaps I should say ”beyond“) Crush comes Friends or Lovers, another new USA series with roots in the tabloids, and it is poisonous and perverse. ”Do you have a friend who thinks they‘ve found the perfect partner, but you know their lover is not so perfect after all?“ the producers ask on their Web site. ”Will all three of you be in the L.A. area? You can be on our show!“ It is not Jules and Jim, my friends; more like Jenny and Jerry. A guest — it’s hard to know what to call them (victim might be more appropriate) — listens first while a trusted friend attacks the character of the guest‘s significant other, then as the significant other, kneeling upon a ”confession pillow,“ attempts to explain a misunderstanding or begs forgiveness for sins real or perceived. Most of them seem to have done what they’re accused of, or close enough, and mostly this involves old-fashioned infidelity (”You remember the girl that got me the job there — we kind of slept together“), but there are occasional twists, as when a criminal record is disclosed, or a boyfriend‘s mysterious absences are revealed to have been for meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. Like Crush, Friends or Lovers asks participants to make a potentially life-changing decision in no more time than Monty Hall allowed to choose between door number one and the box where Carol Merrill is standing, but unlike that show it is steeped in misfortune and rancor, stupidity and sadness. And like Crush, it all comes down to who gets to go along on the free trip, the friend or the lover, as here again the host tries to put a good face on the carnage. Life sucks, but, hey: You’re going to Acapulco!

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