From the inauguration of a president who has confessed on tape to sexual predation, to the explosion of harassment and assault allegations that began this fall, women’s confidence in men has reached unprecedented lows—which poses a not-insignificant issue among those who date them.
Not that things were all that much better in 2016, or the year before that; Gamergate and the wave of campus assault reporting in recent years certainly didn’t get many women in the mood, either.
In fact, the past five or so years of dating men might best be described by involved parties as bleak.
It’s into this landscape that dystopian anthology series has dropped its fourth season.
Among its six episodes, which hit Netflix on Friday, is “Hang the DJ,” a heartbreaking hour that explores the emotional and technological limits of dating apps, and in doing so perfectly captures the modern desperation of trusting algorithms to find us love—and, in fact, of dating in this era at all.(Spoiler alert: major spoilers for the episode “Hang the DJ” follow.)The story follows Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), millennials navigating an opaque, AI-powered dating program they call “the System.” With disc-like smart devices, or “Coaches,” the antiseptically calculating System leads participants through mandatory relationships of varying durations in an enclosed campus, assuaging doubts with the cool assurance that it’s all for love: every assignment helps provide its algorithm with enough meaningful data to eventually pair you, at 99.8% accuracy, with “your perfect match.”The System designs and facilitates every encounter, from pre-ordering meals to hailing autonomous shuttles that carry each couple to a tiny-house suite, where they must cohabit until their “expiry date,” a predetermined time at which the relationship will end.
(Failure to comply with the System’s design, your Coach warns, will result in banishment.) Participants are encouraged to check a relationship’s expiry date together, but beyond remaining together until that time, are free to behave naturally—or as naturally as possible, given the suffocating circumstances.
Frank and Amy’s chemistry on their first date is electric—awkward and sweet, it’s the kind of encounter one might hope for with a Tinder match—until they discover their relationship has a 12-hour shelf life.
Later she describes the experience, her frustration agonizingly familiar to today’s single women: “The System’s just bounced me from bloke to bloke, short fling after short fling.I know that they’re short flings, and they’re just meaningless, so I get really detached.It’s like I’m not really there.”But then, miraculously, Frank and Amy match again, and this time they agree not to check their expiry date, to savor their time together.In their renewed partnership and blissful cohabitation, we glimpse both those infinitesimal sparks of hope and the relatable moments of digital desperation that keep us renewing accounts or restoring Ok Cupid profiles ad nauseam.With a Sigur Rós-esque score to rival ’s soul-rending, almost abusive deployment of Album Leaf’s song “The Light,” the tenderness between them is enhanced, their delicate chemistry ever vulnerable to annihilation by algorithm.Frank and Amy’s shared uncertainty about the System——mirrors our own skepticism about our own proto-System, those costly online services whose big promises we must blindly trust to reap romantic success.Though their System is intentionally depressing for us as an audience, it’s marketed to them as a solution to the problems that plagued single people of yesteryear—that is, the problems that plague us, today.On the surface, the pair appreciates its simplicity, wondering how anyone could have lived with such guesswork and discomfort in the same way we marvel at how our grandmothers simply married the next-door neighbor’s kid at 18.(Frank does have a point about choice paralysis; it’s a legitimate, if recent, dating woe; the System’s customizable consent settings are also undeniably enviable.)One night, an insecure Frank finally breaks and checks their countdown without telling Amy.5 YEARS, the device reads, before loudly announcing he has “destabilized” the partnership and abruptly recalibrating, sending that duration plummeting, bottoming out at just a few hours.Amy is furious, both are bereft, but fear keeps them on course, off to another montage of hollow, depressing hookups; it isn’t until they’re offered a final goodbye before their “ultimate match” date that they finally decide they’d rather face banishment together than be apart again.