The conventions of reality dating shows are well established: the teary confessional, the poolside hookup, the catfight, the dramatic elimination.
Dating Around, which arrived on Netflix last month, has none of those things. Each of its six episodes follows a New Yorker as they go on five separate dates across the city, navigating through awkward silences, shared passions, bad jokes and arguments over cultural differences. In its diversity and anti-sensationalist gaze, it’s the reality dating show closest to dating in reality.
The show’s third episode centers on Lex Liang, a costume and set designer who runs an events design company. He’s also a gay Asian-American man who never assumed he would get cast as a lead on a dating show. “Why would you want me on a dating show? I’m not a football player virgin,” he joked in an interview with TIME. Over coffee—and in the same white-tee-black-jeans getup he wore to each date—Liang talked about being Asian in the gay community, being gay in the Asian community, and the ups and downs of the grueling shooting process.
TIME: How did you get cast on the show?
Liang: A friend of mine actually runs The House that Casting Built, which cast the show. When she first contacted me, I was on the west coast for my job. I said, “Listen: I will do this and meet your diversity quota, because I’m pretty sure that’s why you’re asking me to do this.”
So that’s that baseline subconscious self-loathing or insecurity. What do I have to offer? I don’t look like that dude—I don’t race cars. And interestingly enough, she said: “That’s exactly why I’m asking you.”
Why did you want to appear on the show?
I thought, you know what? This might be an opportunity to actually find a match. I’ve done all the apps. I travel my ass off. I try to go on dates. It never works. It was like, why doesn’t Netflix find six people for me to date?
You said on the show that this was your first true blind date.
Yes. Often, we all probably swipe left on a lot of people that we would want to engage with in real life. But they’re just a two-dimensional image at that point. So there’s no real human connection.
You seemed very comfortable on camera. Were you thinking about the fact that you were being filmed?
I was very drunk. Let’s make that abundantly clear. And I don’t want to say that was encouraged—but that was encouraged. And everybody loves a little social lubricant.
The principle of the experiment was, “let’s get what it’s like to really date on camera.” I tend to not shy away from just sort of being myself, but it takes a long time to get comfortable with that. But 15 to 20 minutes or three or four gins in, I got real comfortable. Also, within five to 10 minutes, I sort of knew that none of these guys was going to be a love connection. But I didn’t want to preclude the evening. So I thought, let’s just have fun with it and see what the actual dynamic is.
But there were some times that I would be having a conversation that was really annoying and I’d look at the camera and just start talking sh-t. God, I hope there’s a bloopers reel.
Were the dates scripted at all? How much guidance did you get from the producers?
While it wasn’t scripted or specifically directed, they did try to steer it when the ship was off course. At a certain point, I believe the creator took me aside and said, “You’re really good at getting information out of your fellow daters. Tell us a little bit more about you and let yourself be a little vulnerable.” Which is that conversation between Mic [pictured above] and I. And if I’m being totally honest, I wouldn’t have had that conversation with Mic. Totally sweet guy, but half of what I said went over his head.
How many days did you shoot them over?
We shot over a week. They wanted me to take the week off, but there was no way I was going to do that—my company was doing a major store renovation in Soho, and I had to meet contractors every day at 8 a.m. So we would shoot for eight to 10 hours, from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. I would meet somebody for like an hour and we would do drinks and then they would reset. We would go away and take a break or the bartender would bring me another cocktail. I would get home around six. I watched the sun come up every day that week. I would take a nap and then go back to work.
That sounds absolutely exhausting.
I think there’s a scene where I fall over in the car. I’m pretty sure I just crashed out at that point.
Did it start to feel repetitive? Was one of the reasons you picked Cory [the formerly aspiring clergyman] because he was the first date?
Potentially. The first date, the first time we shot, the first time on camera, and meeting Cory for the first time—I think that might have been the most organic. At a certain point it became a little formulaic.
Do you feel the episode accurately captured the spirit of each of the dates?
Yes. Tip of the hat to the editors. All these dates were very different, topically and dynamically. But they really did capture them very accurately and brilliantly edited them together to make it seem like one cohesive thing.
It seems like most of your date with Jonathan [the mustachioed songwriter-slash-dog-walker] was you giving him stink eyes about his eating habits.
Here’s the thing with me: my face doesn’t lie. It is the one Asian trait I wish I got: that Asian stoicism [laughs]. My face is like a bowl of silly putty.
Jonathan is just so joyous as a person. He’s so true to himself that there was no way I was going to walk away from that date because I actually found him kind of interesting. I remember thinking to myself, “Man, this guy is really confident! Good for him!” But as we’re trying to have this conversation, there’s just stuff falling out of his mouth.
He reads you some of his song lyrics, and the episode cuts away before you actually respond. What did you say in the moment?
You mean the one that’s on camera? Because there are multiple. At one point he had asked me, “Do you want to hear another one?” I said, “No, no, no, no. I’m good.”
I don’t know if he was doing that for the camera—if he was trying to plug himself. Which is fair. He had a platform. He was wearing every sequin in New York City. But just because we didn’t click and I happen to be on camera watching somebody scarf food at a phenomenal rate, that shouldn’t color what people think he is as a person. He’s a ton of fun. If I ever get a dog, he’s gonna walk it.
You talk with Peter [the actor] a bit about being “Gaysian.” How has being Asian-American affected your own dating life?
I have been really lucky in my dating life, and can say that I’ve dated every color under the sun. But we all know that extreme racism is so rampant in the gay community. I can’t tell you how many times on Grindr it’s like, “no Asians, no fats, no femmes.”
And yes, that is, at its core, racist. But on the flip side, we are a product of how we’re brought up. A lot of that is marketing and a lot of it is just this ingrained racism. So fundamentally, the entire country is underexposed. And so we decide to fetishize the other and appropriate things. And it continues this cycle.
There aren’t many depictions of Asian-American men in romantic situations in television and movies.
I see all of these African-Americans raising their voices and getting representation. And I’m just like, “Yes! Go get it!” But Asian people, we like to be the silent culture ninjas. We’ll assimilate. We’ll work really hard. I used to be in that boat—no pun intended—and think, “let’s just co-exist. Let’s not cause a ruckus or draw any attention.”
But then you say, hold on one second: that’s part of the problem. And the only way this is going to change is if you have an Asian leading man in a major Hollywood release, with Julia Roberts falling in love with him. That’s the only way that Pennsylvania to Nevada, and Montana to Texas, is going to be like, “Oh. So they’re not just the nerdy best friend? They’re not just the accountant?”
Did you feel an extra weight being one of the few leading Asian men in media, even if just for a week?
I don’t think the gravity of what we’re talking about in terms of representation ever really landed. The whole experience was just sort of an experiment that I thought would be fun to do. But the only thing we can do is to keep that exposure high so that people are so used to seeing a black person with a Latina person, with a white person, with a trans person, with an Asian person, so that it’s no big deal.
What challenges do Asians specifically face in the gay community?
I don’t know very well only because I was really fortunate. But I do know a bunch of people who, in “the Asian way,” we just don’t talk about that. There’s a very awkward silence when we’re at family gatherings.
It was certainly something that, when I was less competent and less secure as a teenager, you kind of tiptoe around it. But that causes its own problems. We’re already underrepresented. People are already underexposed to us. We’re taught to sort of be invisible. And suddenly you couple that with all of that repression—you’re an other of an other. And it’s frankly kind of dangerous in terms of people’s mental health.
Did you and Cory continue dating?
We did another one without the cameras there, which was great. We kept in touch for a while, but sort of, I call it, mutually disengaged. For me, it’s hard because I’m sort of out of town so much. That’s something I’m going to have to deal with.
Did you learn anything from being on the show about how to behave on dates?
You saw the episode. Does it look like I take lessons on how to behave?
Have people been sliding into your DMs since the episode aired?
The short answer is yes. Complete strangers writing from Portugal, Taiwan, Japan, or Queens and asking you out is really interesting, to say the least. But I haven’t been on any dates after.
Are you still looking for somebody?
Are you offering? [Laughs] Yeah. But something that this process taught me is, you can’t force it. It’s gonna happen or it’s not gonna happen, and that’s okay too.