Before I finally weaned myself off reality television, I used to fantasize about a new kind of Bachelor franchise. Instead of tanned and muscular milquetoasts courting a bunch of taut-bodied ladies who work in sales, there would be a handsome if anemic-looking lad in a chambray shirt courting young women with tattoos and/or glasses, library cards and/or sewing machines, their bodies either skinny-flabby or heavy and lush. On this show, no one would have their teeth bleached and capped, and no one would fly in a helicopter. Instead of talking about their commitment to love, contestants would discuss their passions as software developers, artists, or political scientists, and talk about books and current events. It would be Alterna-Bachelor, and I’d tune in every week.
Unfortunately, no such show has arrived, and so, at the end of July, when something about the web-based project 40 Days of Dating appeared on my Tumblr dashboard, I was hungry for a new kind of romance narrative.
If you missed it, 40 Days of Dating was created by two New York-based designers, Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman. As the site explains: “Two good friends with opposite relationship problems found themselves single at the same time. As an experiment, they dated for 40 days.” They devised six rules, which included seeing each other every day, visiting a couple’s counselor once a week, and, of course, documenting everything.
(If you haven’t already visited the site, I’ll wait while you do so. See you in, oh, fifteen hours…)
The first time I found 40 Days of Dating, the entire experiment hadn’t been posted yet. That first afternoon, I scrolled through the days updated so far, slobbering them up as fast as I could, until — suddenly! — there were no new posts to click on. I’m pretty sure I moaned, partially out of desperation for more of Tim and Jessica’s story, and partially out of relief, for it meant I could live a normal life again, reading merely a post a day from then on. Either way, I was sure 40 Days of Dating was one of the most compelling internet projects I’d stumbled upon in a while – -the antithesis of “tl;dr.” It’s no surprise that Walsh and Goodman have since signed with CAA for representation in “all areas” — which means, I suppose, that their project could become a book, a movie, a television series, a musical, a video game, or all of the above. Their collaboration clearly resonates with people. But why?
For one, the drama of the experiment feels immediate, with both parties describing moments and experiences with selective but strong details, be it the headaches Jessica suffers from the first couple of weeks, or Tim’s attraction to Jessica when she wears her hair up, or when they finally kiss for the first time. They take pains to convey their emotions as they tilt and shift, while also occasionally discussing tangential topics like coffee, basketball, and Walt Disney. It’s voyeuristic, but what’s displayed isn’t unfiltered, which is both refreshing and a bit tantalizing: I kept wondering what wasn’t included, what moments didn’t get recorded. (I am not going to lie, I am seriously hoping a sex tape gets unearthed soon!)
Despite the site’s as-it-happens feeling, the experiment is over; they posted it only after the project was completed. It’s recent history, even if it seems like it’s occurring right now. Their narratives are paired with typography and design work by their many talented friends, which reminds the reader that this love experiment is also a design experiment, collaborative to its core. The project is deliberate.
This dichotomy, between spontaneity and premeditation, created an interesting tension for me as I followed the project: I was continually swept away by their drama, while also cognizant that it had already passed. I kept imagining the couple in the present: were they still together, like, for real? Were they enemies? OMFG, what if they were married by now? I also kept considering their unkempt, un-designed inner selves next to the site’s slick presentation. Goodman and Walsh claim to want to get at the root of their relationship troubles, to dive deeply into the mud of their desires and flaws, and yet, this self-exploration is hemmed in by the limited questionnaire they’ve assigned themselves to answer every day, and by the vision of whatever guest designer they’ve asked to render their writing into a cool image some youngster might want to frame and hang above their flea market-gleaned love seat. Unlike some other critics, I don’t doubt Goodman and Walsh’s sincerity; just because your shit looks tight on the internet doesn’t make it any less authentic. But it also might mean that what Goodman and Walsh learned about themselves from this experiment can’t be translated, can’t fit the medium they’ve devised for it. I say “might” because I’m still not sure. My brain’s still spinning a little.
What’s also compelling about 40 Days of Dating is its “he said/she said” nature. Throughout the experiment, I was regularly surprised by how conflicting their accounts were. (For instance, once Tim tried to send Jess a flirty text, but she thought he was being seriously jealous and shut him down real quick. The misunderstanding was too cute, as I might tell my son.) Other times, one person will describe an entire encounter that the other doesn’t mention at all, and it feels like they’re experiencing drastically different events. The project is a lesson for fiction writers in the variance of point of view, and it proves that interpersonal communication can be as trying as putting together Ikea furniture. The last post, on the 40th day, is the most heartbreaking, for when Tim confesses, “I know now that I’m in love with her. I love her, yet I know there’s nothing else I can do,” it’s clear that Jessica has no idea — or she didn’t at the time — and that their failure to adequately express their perspectives to each other is what led to their downfall as romantic partners.
Both Jessica and Tim answered the same questions every day, and their responses are posted on the left- and right hand columns respectively. The side-by-side format, with different graphics for each, emphasizes their isolated experiences. It also complicates the reading process, for one has to make decisions about what to read and look at first, and why. (The experience reminded me of a little of approaching a graphic novel like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, where simply scanning left-to-right just won’t cut it.) Some days, I read Jessica’s answers first, sometimes Tim’s, and other days I’d toggle back and forth between each of them. How I absorbed the graphics was another variable. I felt like one of the collaborators in this regard, participating in the experience.
There’s another way I participated in the experience, or imagined that I was: I hoped. Like a sports fan who wears his favorite jersey on game day and screams at the T.V., I had this superstitious feeling that my actions made a difference in the outcome of this couple. I tuned in and rooted for the success of Tim-and-Jessica, this forever-after couple. And, boy, did I want it to work out! Throughout my 40 Days experience, I continually caught myself yearning for the happily-ever-after narrative; I wanted Goodman and Walsh’s story to adhere to a RomCom formula, even as I knew that it was a formula. The contradiction reminded me of Mindy Kaling’s essay “Flick Chicks.” In it, she writes:
I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.
You can read 40 Days of Dating as another of these narratives, participating in these unbelievable tropes. From that angle, Jessica plays the overworked, career-driven female lead, while Tim plays the go-lucky committment-phobic dude who will rescue her from her uptightery. Throughout, friends of each (off-the-page, in this story), express their concerns over the project, just as minor characters would show disapproval in a cliched romantic comedy. Throughout it all, the viewer/reader longs for the final act to bring about confessions of true love. That these lovers are also super hip (i.e., their handwriting is font-worthy and they somehow manage to find the coolest Mickey Mouse paraphernalia at Disney World), nudges something inside of me: namely, the notion that True Love Exists for All. It turns out, we can all be Katherine Heigl and James Marsden, even the skinny-flabby and the yellow-toothed among us.
Except that this story doesn’t end happily, not in the traditional sense: Jessica Walsh and Tim Goodman aren’t together, haven’t been since day 40. Instead, they remain business partners, if not friends, possibly earning oodles of money off their wacky project. And I end up checking myself, for longing for that master narrative, for letting it persist in my imagination when there are far more complex stories to be had.
In the end, maybe Alterna-Bachelor would fail because the very people I’d imagine on that show would be way too cool for something that commercial. Or maybe it would fail because a bearded guy who likes IPAs isn’t inherently interesting. (It takes four years of college sex to learn that one!) By now, when even the boy toys in One Direction look like promising cast members for my imaginary show, and when consumer culture co-opts identities faster than you can say Silverlake, there’s nothing to differentiate my idea from the original Bachelor franchise except the obligatory tribal plugs and a few more brunettes. All that means nothing if the story adheres to the same false notion of happily-ever-after.
Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman recognize that falseness, I think, and are thus looking at different ways to adapt their story. They might have been on the Today Show, but I doubt you’ll see them hosting their own cheesy talk show anytime soon, or, worse, taping their wedding for the E! network. Straightforward television just isn’t flexible enough for this story. Goodman recently said, “We’re interested in creating a book about our experience and a web-based community platform for others to participate in this experience.”
What this web-based community will look like is beyond my powers of fantasy, but I’ll definitely take a peek as soon as it’s a reality.
See you on the internets, guys.