‘Swiping America’ puts realness back into reality TV

Swiping America is now available on Max.
Swiping America is now available on Max.
Jane Hahn/Max

Let’s face it, we’ve all at least taken a peek at dating reality shows like “The Bachelor/Bachelorette” or “Love Island,” where (often shirtless) horned-up hunks vie for the affections of (often bikini-clad) sultry babes, or vice versa. For many viewers, it’s an addictive, guilty pleasure. 

Problem is, the framework is so contrived that the “reality” element has been largely expunged. True romance takes a back seat to conniving, spectacle, and frankly, exploitation. You can almost hear the producers say, “Now throw that glass of merlot in Gavin’s face and storm out of the room.”

Enter “Swiping America,” the unscripted series from Max that bills itself as a “rom-doc” (romantic documentary) focusing on the pursuit and joy of human connection. The premise is simple: four lovelorn New Yorkers — in their late twenties/thirties — tour eight cities around the US and go on dates in search of love, perhaps even their soulmate. In the final episode they reunite with their favorite match and decide if they wish to take things to the next level.

We witness their awkward, often adorable first encounters and full-on dates against stunning backdrops of locales like New Orleans, Santa Fe, and Honolulu. Sometimes a lucky contender is invited to a subsequent city for special bonus dates. The competition element has been completely removed, allowing for quieter, more authentic moments. And this engenders vulnerability, even likability, in the love-seekers.

“There’s something about this show that really appeals to an audience — you care about these people, you want them to be happy,” said Kim Cattrall, a moderator at a recent panel discussion promoting the series in New York. “You want them to find what hopefully you have found or in the process of finding, so you cheer for them…It’s really quite beautiful. I think I’m gonna cry.”

The former “Sex and the City” star made a sly reference to the sequel Max series, “And Just Like That,” which she famously shunned the first season. When she jokingly started to introduce that show by mistake, she said, “Oh, wait a minute. That’s another show!”

The appealing, diverse cast of “Swiping America” was carefully chosen for maximum chemistry and minimal drama. Ashleigh (“Ash”) is a no-nonsense media entrepreneur whose father, a pastor, essentially rejected her for being a lesbian. Kesun is a “bubbly” real estate agent of Korean descent willing to abandon New York if she found the right potential husband elsewhere. Krishnanand (“Kris”) is a sweet, shy gay man of Indian descent who works as a data scientist. Reagan is a hair stylist and fashionista who thinks it’s perfectly okay to bring her little dog Mosie on dates. Named for America’s 40th president, she’s the most gregarious and hilarious of the bunch and deserves her own show.

“Swiping America” is created by Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren, executive producers of “We’re Here,” Max’s reality series that follows three drag queens around America to open hearts and minds about LGBTQ rights. The men recounted the complex process of casting the series. 

“We were looking for people that were incredibly attractive emotionally, physically, that people can connect with,” Stephen said. “So they presented us with many, many, many different options. And then we wound up narrowing it down and we did a chem test, and we found these four, and we just absolutely knew these were the right people.”

Why flee New York City to find the ideal match? Aren’t there hundreds of potential mates within a few subway stops away? 

“Everyone’s so busy here,” Reagan said. “It’s a very energetic city and that’s why so many people have weekend homes, because you really can’t slow down while you’re here. The city consumes you. And so everyone’s in this super energetic mode all the time. And you can easily be missing each other like ships –– but fast ships.”

Kesun felt that the vibe in the houses they shared was akin to living in a college dorm, albeit a really fancy dorm with a swimming pool. “We had our little morning routines, our evening routines, and throughout the day we really were just rooting for each other,” she said. “So it was like a family. We’d come home at night and tell each other about our days and we were all figuring it out as we went, together.”

When Kim asked what they learned from the experience, Kris replied, “I take things very seriously, maybe too seriously. At the beginning I was so nervous I didn’t know what to do. And by the end I felt like I was running it…And now, whenever I meet someone, I no longer question, ‘Am I gonna have fun?’ I know I’m gonna have fun. I don’t know if they will have fun, but I know I will.”

Ash was more philosophical, grateful that the show is still teaching her things about herself.

“Starting this, I felt like I knew myself so well, and that has evolved so much in what I’m looking for in a person…Love is not enough,” Ash said. “Does this person bring you peace? Does this person feel compatible to your life? Where you want to go, who you wanna become? And if they don’t, then you need to be patient. And that’s hard.”

Not that the producers’ hands are completely invisible. They swipe through possible matches and help curate the blind dates. There are plenty of thirst-trap moments where the women sport sexy attire and Kris is shirtless in all his hairy-chested glory. Not an accident. 

If I had one quibble, it’s that the producers leaned a bit too heavily on the kumbaya camaraderie. I don’t recall one moment of friction, which was somewhat mystifying because these four imperfect strangers were thrown together as roommates for two months. If you’re looking for the moment where somebody yells, “Your goddamn mutt just pooped on the carpet again!” you might be better off watching reruns of “The Real World.”

When Kim asked what was the biggest love lesson learned, Ash surprised the audience by not referring to her cavalcade of romantic dates.

“I would say you guys,” Ash said, referring to her castmates. “That you can still make beautiful friends past your twenties. I really thought I was done, I’m good. And then I’m like, I love you guys. I could never get rid of you. You guys are stuck with me forever.”

Swiping America | Max Original | Entire series now streaming on Max