Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren didn’t necessarily set out to create a new genre of television when they came up with the idea for Swiping America, but they knew they weren’t going to gamify or over-dramatize their leads’ search for love.
The intro narration describes it as “a rom-doc in eight parts.” As a portmanteau, it’s pretty clear: Romantic comedy meets documentary. In practice, it’s relatable, heartwarming and much more real than some other love-related unscripted series.
“If you don’t want to watch something that feels like it’s a burning garbage bin of television, you can watch this and feel good,” Ingram says with a laugh. “It’s a lovely watch.”
Partners and Emmy-winning producers Ingram and Warren — a marketing and advertising creative and top Hollywood talent lawyer, respectively — previously created We’re Here for HBO. They came up with the idea for Swiping America while watching the cast and crew of that series swiping through dating apps while filming on location.
Swiping America, which premiered on Max in June, follows four New Yorkers — Ash, Kesun, Kris and Reagan — who had been professionally thriving but unlucky in love, and takes them on an eight-stop journey across the U.S. to see if their perfect match could be waiting for them in an unexpected place. Unlike many current popular dating reality series — which entertain audiences in a very different way — there are no pre-planned dramatic twists or unrealistic gimmicks.
“The beauty of the show is that the audience is getting something that they’ve never seen before,” Warren says. “We’re doing something that no one else does. We’re not overproducing it. We are trusting our instincts. We’re trusting the people we’re casting. We’re trusting that we have a format that’s going to give us story even when we don’t think that it’s coming.”
There is one catch: In each of the cities the cast visits, the producers did the “swiping” for them. Production partnered with The House that Casting Built, which found and pre-vetted singles from various dating and social apps. The leads received their matches via text message to simulate the modern dating experience as closely as possible while still operating within the confines of a Hollywood production.
From there they went on “date zero” with the matches they wanted to meet. Sometimes there was another date, but not always. And some of them chose to invite love interests they connected with in one city to meet up with them again later in another.
“We wanted to make something about love and human connection,” Ingram says. “Yes, I think there’s inherent drama in people’s search for love, but it’s not manufactured or produced. That’s what we wanted to capture. In real life, there’s always an unexpected twist or turn. Somebody didn’t FaceTime me, or somebody gets COVID and we can’t do the date. There are all kinds of unexpected things.”
Earlier this month, Ingram and Warren joined a Zoom with THR to talk about why they wanted this show to be different from the others, what they were looking for in casting their leads and possibilities for a second season.
What has the response to Swiping America been like?
Stephen Warren: The response has been phenomenal. People have reached out from all across the country, and the universal response is “We had no idea what to expect here. We had no idea this was going to be a show that had so much heart, so much humor. And we love these people.”
Johnnie Ingram: They’re genuinely rooting for all the characters versus some tropes in dating shows, you know, their villain edits, the competitive elements, manufactured drama, and everybody just wants to be famous. This is a new show, so the inherent fame isn’t necessarily promised. We also cast people that had to want to be on TV enough to do it, but weren’t gunning to be the next Instagram superstar and doing whatever they need to do on camera to get those followers. I think this is more a genuine, authentic, close to real life dating approach with an element of fantasy that is peppered throughout that keeps that romantic comedy feel.
We’ve grown so used to what I affectionately call dumpster-fire dating shows, and this is about as far from that as you can get.
Ingram: We wanted to celebrate the real steps toward finding a person. Instead of them going from zero to marriage, we really celebrated the butterflies, the excitement that you get when you finally meet someone that you might be attracted to, or that first kiss that you really wanted, the feeling behind that and then talking about it after with your friends.
Where did the idea for this come from and how did it happen from there?
Warren: While we were filming We’re Here, Johnnie and I would see many of our cast and crew on Grindr or Hinge, or whatever dating app that they were on. We’re in these small towns, and they would go on dates. Sometimes it lasted longer than a day. Our drag shows at the end of each of the episodes would have bigger and bigger VIP sections because people were meeting people in the towns and then bringing them to the drag show. So Johnnie and I thought, what if we turn that around on its head? What if we took four New Yorkers, successful professionally but unsuccessful finding love, and they let us do the swiping for them across the country in different cities? Because they’ve not been successful in New York, does that mean they’re going to have the same issues in other cities? Who is out there? There’s always that fantasy that I’m going to meet some wonderful doctor in Wichita, Kansas, or that musician in Miami who is the dream person that I’d never otherwise meet.
Ingram: You meet people and you experience a place through a person, and sometimes that can blossom into something more. You have a true, I call it, “Eat, Gay, Love” experience on the road, sort of finding yourself through other people. We wanted to capture both the energy of people genuinely looking for the person they just can’t seem to find in the city and that journey you take as single people, learning from others along the way. If you don’t end up with your person by the end, you will end up knowing more about yourself and your love life.
Warren: On the business side, what happened was [HBO CEO] Casey Bloys and I had drinks and we were talking about season one of We’re Here and other stuff. He said, “You know, I have an idea for a dating show.” He told me what the idea was, and I said, “Hmm, I don’t think that’s the idea. The idea is Swiping America.” And I described exactly what Johnnie and I had thought about. He goes, “I love that. I’ve always wanted to do a show where people sit on a bed after they have dates and they talk about what their experience was.” He wanted that connection and that’s exactly what we wanted.
What were you looking for when you were casting these four leads?
Ingram: We really wanted to pluck people off the streets of New York. A lot of people move there for Sex and the City, looking for their Mr. Big. They get there and they’re like, well, I found my career but love is really hard to find because everyone is just so busy. We wanted people who had something to offer, but they were still looking for that other half. We wanted to make a show that felt very authentic to not only the dating experience, but also the people you would see on a dating app.
We call it a bit of a love bubble. You’re never going to have in your entire life this moment where you can just hyper-focus on your love life. That’s exactly what we did. We got these four people, and we wanted them to be vulnerable and to trust us. There are lots of different sort of story points within the season where each character has sort of a peak they overcome, whether it’s erectile dysfunction or having a differently-abled child. One of our characters met someone prior and then did not like us having control over their dating life. And then we had another who was really wanting to find her husband. We had four very different journeys, but they all had something they were holding back. I think we all do when we go into the dating world. There’s always something that you’re afraid to communicate in the very beginning.
Warren: We also wanted everyone to be likable. We wanted everyone to have enough layers where you could question some of their judgment, but at the same time we wanted the audience to fall in love with them and to live vicariously through their journey.
One of the things that I noticed people have been really positive about online is how inclusive this show is. How did that factor in when you were casting?
Ingram: There have been some other dating formats that found it problematic to have queer-inclusive storylines within their format. We really wanted to create something that was inclusive and just blends with real life. It really wasn’t about, “Hey, we have queer characters and these queer characters are only going to talk about being queer the entire time and it’s gonna beat you over the head with it.” It was more just about coexisting, which is what we do in the real world. We have friends that are also single and they’re going through the same things that we’re going through and we can identify those similarities. Yes, there are some nuances and some differences and we touch a little bit on that in some of the dates and how they unfold, but there’s also just this beauty of coexisting.
Warren: It’s not just sexual orientation, it’s race, it’s everything. What’s important in the show is that we’re showing how people live in real life. These differences don’t matter. When you are living together and focused on finding love and getting to know each other, those differences are really irrelevant. I think the show has done a good job of showing what life can be. These are people that you want to spend some time with. That’s what we were looking for.
Johnnie: And representing America as it is. It is very diverse, and you’re going to meet all kinds of interesting people and you’re going to learn from each other, and I think that’s really special.
What are some things that you learned during the course of creating this first season that you would tweak or change or add for season two, if that were to happen?
Ingram: None of us had made a dating show, but we all know we wanted to make something very different and special. We loved our showrunner Stephanie Schwam and our director Jyllian Gunther so much. They’re documentary and film nerds, and they were very passionate about elevating our search for love and this romantic-comedy-like execution. They did a really wonderful job.
We are very excited by establishing the format and establishing this love bubble, but I’d love nothing more than break it. You could lean into other aspects of relationships and other different types of people looking for love. Finding unexpected ways to twist and turn it without sacrificing the realness and the authenticity. Finding characters that maybe mingle in a different way, maybe have more different relationship types. Most importantly, the different types of friendships in single people, whether it’s age differences or sexual orientation or gender mixes. For example, if we had four male comedians, we’re going to have a very different swiping experience than we had in our first season.
Warren: The format is so malleable. We’re so excited about it and we have a billion different ideas. When we get that second season, it’s going to be fun.
One of the things that I think worked really well is that there were clearly general structural elements, but then you were flexible with what the leads actually wanted to do. You didn’t force them to pick somebody to bring to a second city or let them only go on one first date following date zero. You let one of them bring in somebody they met prior to the show.
Ingram: We wanted to set the structure and then follow the love. Love happens in mysterious ways. This is a whole new format. Clearly we learned a lot about producing love and having an opportunity to create a scene and a space for people to genuinely fall in love. Behind the camera we really are rooting for these characters as much as you are at home. Yes, we did the initial swiping for them, but they got the power back. We really wanted to follow [their lead]. The ability to continue that romance with someone they had met in a previous city has this element of, “I know I just met you and this is crazy, but let’s fucking do this.” There’s something really romantic about that.
Will there be any kind of update on where these people are now?
Warren: It’s to be determined. We’re getting a ton of responses and everyone wants to know what happened — and it is interesting what happened. Ideally if HBO wants to do a live follow-up or a follow-up episode, we could do that. We have big stars reaching out to us wanting to host the show because they’re obsessed with these people and they believe in it. They are saying to us that the show has changed their lives, that it makes them feel good about the world.
Ingram: There are lots of updates. We did an edit with follows and we wanted to hold it back to get people excited for what those updates are. We shot this a long time ago, so it’s been a significant amount of time since the season finished filming. There’s definitely some love that continued and there’s also some love that’s been lost. We’re excited to share more, whether that’s in a follow-up episode or even potentially in a season two. We’re open to how that comes to life. While we figure that out, we can tell you there’s a wedding to catch! Think you can guess who is married?!
Interview edited for length and clarity.