L.A.'s swinging for singles

Special to The Times

"Single in the City" -- a real-life counterpoint to HBO's "Sex and the City," exploring the dating rituals of Big Apple bachelorettes -- was a sleeper hit on cable's WE channel last summer, boosting the women-oriented cable network's exposure among female viewers in the 18-to-34 demographic.

With dating-oriented reality shows especially popular at the moment -- think "Joe Millionaire" or "The Bachelorette" -- it touched a nerve, especially with young single women. But as successful as it was for the relatively new Women's Entertainment channel, executives there heard from many viewers with essentially identical messages: "Those women aren't like me."

So the show came west. "The characters in the Los Angeles series are much more approachable for every woman," says Martin von Ruden, executive vice president of WE. "There's an exuberance in the L.A. women that wasn't present in the New York women. An exuberance and energy that's only present in L.A."

"Single in L.A.," like its predecessor and spinoff series, "Single in the Hamptons," is a soap opera-style documentary series that tracked 12 real women over last summer as they searched for their soul mates in the Southland. It premiered Sunday night on WE.

Viewers may be surprised that, if anything, the young women profiled in "Single in L.A." are even more adventurous than their East Coast counterparts on the fictional "Sex and the City" or the reality "Single in the City." Indeed, most of the women don't want to be caught, says Sally Miles, executive producer of September Films, the production company behind "Single in L.A."

"We found in L.A. women weren't prepared to commit that quickly," she said. "You've got that sort of bigger, better deal scenario. There's much more rapid dating going on and people looking around."

Among the singles in the locally set sequel are Alma, the hapless "queen of dating"; Tiffany, a buxom cocktail waitress who scours night spots for "victims" ("I want them wounded and bruised!" she insists); Yolanda, a twice-engaged hairstylist with a penchant for picking the wrong men; and the sassy Suzanne, an aspiring singer and wannabe actress who believes she's the perfect catch for any man in Los Angeles.

Their search ranges from bars, clubs and restaurants to the Internet, which is where Alma went to wade through a treacherous singles pool, logging up to five dates a day. "There are 24 hours in the day," said Alma, caterer to film crews. "I have a lot of time in my day, so when I'm not working, why not?"

There's a more creative pickup trick for landing the rich: Take the weekend jog through Beverly Hills in which scantily clad exercisers bobble around in hopes of meeting wealthy men. "The scary thing," says Von Ruden, "is that it works, and they get fit too."

"I meet a lot of guys at the gym," says Shaune, one of Maxim magazine's Hot 100 and a model-turned-actress who, coincidentally, gets free membership to a Los Angeles gym in exchange for attracting more men to the facility. "I don't discount anyone ... the cable guy," she says, without a hint of pretense. "I want someone with a good soul."

A lot easier said than done. "When you go to the bars in L.A. you don't know if you're talking to the real person or their representative," says Angelique, appearing on the show with her Manhattan Beach roommates, Lynne and Angela. "People try to present themselves as much more than they are. I'm kind of used to more reality, 'This is who I am and like it or not,' " says the native of Orange County.

"These shows pick up on the fact that women can really accomplish a lot in their early 20s, but the one area where they're encountering obstacles to their fulfillment is in the world of love," says sociologist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of "Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman." "I think that is the bigger cultural significance of these shows."

Plus there's the bottom line: Reality shows are cheap to make, and the returns can be enormous. With nonscripted dating shows continuing to draw huge ratings, it's not surprising there will be more couples vying for love in America's living rooms.

Fox is working on its next installment of "Joe Millionaire," with a new relationship series, "Mr. Personality," set for April. By the summer Fox will have four more unwed couples with commitment issues on "Temptation Island 3," and the WB's "High School Reunion" has more post-graduation high jinks coming soon. At end of the month, ABC will have a third go-round with "The Bachelor" (featuring a real millionaire heir) and his 25 bride-to-be hopefuls.

NBC is putting together an unscripted relationship show for the fall. And there's no end to the popularity of such syndicated dating competitions as "Elimidate" and "Blind Date."

Meanwhile, WE has commissioned several more in the "Single in ... " series, with a revisit to New York next year, and Las Vegas and Miami's South Beach to follow.

"These dating shows are the holy trinity of reality TV," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media & Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. "It's got the viewers identifying with the participants. It's got viewer superiority over the participants, and it reeks of that train-wreck appeal."

Felling believes that shows like "Single in L.A." have an especially strong shot in this environment. "There is a clear line between structuring some sort of competition and stilting it in an unnatural sense," says Felling, "but these dating programs [like "Single in L.A."] are more natural, at least far more natural than 25 guys and one girl all in one house. That's what the networks have really been trying to capture, that purity of human behavior in a natural scenario."

The generation that grew up over a decade ago watching MTV's "The Real World," which follows seven strangers living in one house, is unfazed watching real people in their private moments. And when a show doesn't pretend to be more than it is ("Joe Millionaire" can be nothing but brain-candy), it finds a loyal audience. "There's a generation of people, 18- to 25-year-olds, who are tired of the hype, tired of being sold in a big consumer society," say Von Ruden. "They're looking for reality."

But even with success, there has been some slippage: Fox's "Married by America" premiered earlier this month 47% below the January debut of "Joe Millionaire" in the same time slot. As with some other reality shows built on high concepts, there's the possibility that the "Single In ..." format may grow stale before long.

"We will have skimmed the bottom of the reality-TV garbage can," Felling said, "when we're doing 'Single in Dubuque.' "

*

'Single in L.A.'

Where: WE (Women's Entertainment)

When: 7 p.m. Sundays

Rating: WE has rated it TV-14D (may not be suitable for children under 14, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)

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