Can three women in their forties get their grooves back by dating men half their age? That’s what Back in the Groove, Hulu’s first foray into the reality dating space, wants to find out. It’s a provocative experiment (especially when one of the single women’s sons shows up in the dating pool) and its results are both deliciously messy and, at times, almost intolerably awkward. (As in, I inhaled all of it while also covering my face at certain points out of sheer discomfort.)
Back in the Groove debuts Monday on Hulu with a four-night premiere—two episodes will become available each day through Thursday, Dec. 8. The title pays homage to the 1998 comedy How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in which Angela Bassett plays a 40-year-old stockbroker who recovers her joie de vivre through a vacation romance with a hot twentysomething.
Our host, Taye Diggs, just happened to make his film debut as the aforementioned hot twentysomething in How Stella Got Her Groove Back—and now he’s inviting three women to reignite their own inner fires. After a quick greeting, however, Diggs kinda just… leaves. Much like Nick and Vanessa Lachey on Netflix’s Love Is Blind, this hosting gig seems to be more about novelty than substance.
Still, there are plenty more sultry lovers where that came from at the Groove Hotel in the Dominican Republic—24 of them to be exact, whose ages range from 22 to 32. The task of keeping all these horny daters in line falls to a secondary character, the Groove Hotel concierge Pedro—who actually does a great job and seems to have a lot of fun asking the contestants “What happened?” with varying degrees of sincerity after eliminations. (Maybe we should let him host next time?)
The first of this season’s singles is Steph, a 41-year-old singer from Miami who says she hasn’t been in a relationship for seven years. “I sit at home with my cobwebs, wrapped up watching TV,” she tells producers. “I need some sexy time in my life!” Then there’s Brooke, a 42-year-old personal trainer who states her long-standing adoration for younger men loudly and proudly. And finally, Sparkle, 43, is a beauty entrepreneur from Atlanta in need of “a reset” after closing her successful business to focus on finding personal fulfillment.
“I need vibrant,” Sparkle says. “I need a stallion. And I need big feet!”
“Dating men my age is godawful,” Steph adds. “The most single-est guys that I’ve met are married. I don’t want nobody’s husband.”
For the most part, Back in the Groove is exactly what you’d expect—comments about older women knowing “what they want,” and some dejected men complaining about the attention other men are getting. The vibe at times feels reminiscent of FBoy Island, especially as all the male contestants wear beaded necklaces similar to those on the HBO Max series. (Seriously, what is with those necklaces anyway?)
Speaking of FBoy Island, Back in the Groove further solidifies former Bachelor producer Elan Gale’s supremacy in the reality dating space. In addition to creating FBoy for HBO Max, Gale served as a consulting producer on Amazon Prime’s Cosmic Love. This new series, on which he serves as showrunner and executive producer, might’ve drawn inspiration from The Cougar—an eight-episode reality dating show from Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss that debuted in 2009 and saw a group of twentysomething men competing for the affections of a 40-year-old real estate agent and mother of four. Gale worked on that show as a segment producer.
Like Gale’s past work, Back in the Groove adopts a more playful tone, poking gentle fun both at its own premise and its contestants. At one point, for instance, we watch as a contestant and subject humorously reenact a dream he supposedly had about her. Only assholes tend to become subjects of ridicule on this show—like the guy with self-professed “mommy issues” who shows up to a cocktail hour in a Cougars jersey.
For all the goofiness, however, Back in the Groove also reveals a sincere side. All three women speak candidly about the traumatic experiences they’ve faced, all of which can close a person off to love. Steph says she’s never dated younger men but has become open to doing so after surviving breast cancer and receiving a double mastectomy—all of which has left her in “a different position.” Brooke recently lost a baby five months into her pregnancy. And Sparkle recounts how she was forced to raise herself for a time as a young teenager after her sister was murdered in a domestic violence situation.
“It’s gratifying to see women over the age of 40 being depicted as full, complex human beings—even in the context of a silly dating show that would absolutely never work if the genders were reversed.”
Whatever one might think about the age gap between these women and the men competing for their affection, sincerity in any dating show can be refreshing. Given how uncomfortable our society seems with letting women age, it’s doubly gratifying to see women over the age of 40 being depicted as full, complex human beings—even in the context of a silly dating show that would absolutely never work if the genders were reversed. Still, it’s hard not to cringe when one of the women talks about dating her friend’s son—whom she jokingly calls her “nephew.”
Much like Netflix’s sibling double-dating show, Dated & Related (in which pairs of adult siblings shared double beds), certain aspects of Back in the Groove feel like they’re designed to stir up the “ick” factor, even as the show humanizes its subjects. But like a car wreck in a sarong or an incoming tornado with rock-hard abs, it’s impossible to look away.