Boatloads of sushi are consumed in the course of ''Hooking Up," an ABC docu-reality series about online dating in New York. The show paints an urban nightscape of singles equipped with chopsticks hoping tonight's blind date will turn out to be the perfect bite -- tender but well-built, heated with just enough wasabi. Of course, most of the hopefuls end up going home with nothing more than stale seaweed in their teeth and a fishy aftertaste.
On one level, ''Hooking Up" plays like the board game Mystery Date, or an unscripted adaptation of ''Sex and the City." The five-part series, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 5, follows the romantic pursuits of a dozen young women looking for love via the Internet. It's funny, sometimes painfully so, as we share the horror of their classic bad dates -- Hostile Man, Butch Dude, Too Pretty Boy, The Finger-Licking Fool. One humorous Mr. Wrong segment finds the well-groomed hair salon manager Cynthia across a table from a mumbling hippie. Appalled, she ducks into the john to phone a friend for rescue.
But there is a bitter poignancy to ''Hooking Up," too, despite the fact that its pandering title implies randy hijinks. The women aren't desperately seeking booty calls: ''I'm looking for a husband," says realtor Amy from the Midwest. ''This isn't just for fun." While they feel empowered by the ability to proactively pursue men on the Internet, they also feel strained by the time-consuming and self-conscious exercise of putting themselves on the line. ''I don't want to lose my optimism," despairing ad executive Claire says in tears.
And these women are tired of dealing with the old bait-and-switch. They can't believe anything they read or hear prior to a date, because false advertising is the norm in personals. Even the explicit nature of the Internet -- the photos, the detailed profiles -- can't stop men from spinning lies and exaggerations. ''Hooking Up" occasionally juxtaposes men's online photos with stills of them on the date, and the two are not exactly fodder for ''separated at birth" features. Not that all the men are portrayed as hammy, reality-style villains; they're just too eager, or a little self-deluded.
And ''Hooking Up" is told from the women's perspective. The men probably feel scammed, too, such as when Lisa, a doctor, lies about her profession and her name. Amy, both likable and ruthless, is smitten with a date named Chris. But soon after they sleep together , Amy breaks it off. ''He's starting to get on my nerves now," she confesses. Meanwhile, Claire has a frivolous Seinfeldian moment when she is turned off by a date's choice of vanilla ice cream: ''That says something, my friend," she tells us.
These aren't groundbreaking dating vignettes, of course; ''Hooking Up" is not news, despite the fact that it's from ABC's news division. Most of us have collected our own war stories, or heard our friends amusingly detail dates from hell, or watched any of the bazillion singles sitcoms that have crowded TV. Even novelists such as Jane Austen were telling tales of longing ladies, cads, and catches, and the risks of first impressions. But ''Hooking Up" has virtues as a familiar story well-told. It's an engaging collection of verite sketches in which Cupid makes only a rare star turn.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.