This is one in a series of occasional articles about the good, the bad and the ugly of looking for love online.

The way Shirley Thomas remembers it, her online setup was dreamy.

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The middle-aged banker whom she agreed to meet at a coffee shop in Owings Mills Mall turned out to be as tall and attractive as he had claimed to be. He was a smart dresser. He smelled so good. And to top it off, he was smart and knew how to carry on a conversation.

Score one for Internet dating, the 54-year-old Owings Mills nurse thought.

Perhaps there was something to letting technology and clinical research lead her to the "right partner for lifelong love and happiness." After all, Thomas had already tried blind dating. She'd tried meeting people at work. She'd even tried finding that special someone at the supermarket. Filling out an online questionnaire seemed downright simple after a 15-year marriage and subsequent divorce led her to years of bad dates.

"My girlfriends finally said, 'You're always on the computer. Try Internet dating.' I decided to join the 21st century and check it out," Thomas said.

Why not let the experts at eHarmony, an online dating service, study her "deep, meaningful characteristics," as the Web site said, then match her with someone who embodied the "29 dimensions that are most important in relationship success?"

Thomas didn't know what the "29 dimensions" involved, but on that day in the mall, it seemed that eHarmony actually had delivered a promising connection.

Several weeks of telephone conversations revealed they had much in common. Both said they were nonsmoking divorcees. Both enjoyed foreign films. Both were well-educated. She said she had no kids. He said he had no kids. When he insisted that they had to meet, he was thoughtful enough to give her an out if coffee didn't go well.

"If we clicked, we'd go to dinner," Thomas said. "If not, we'd go our separate ways. We really hit it off."

So they hopped into his Mercedes (bonus!), drove downtown to Tio Pepe (impressive) where he had a dinner reservation waiting (nicely executed). So what if he ordered a steak and a glass of wine even though her profile clearly stated she was a teetotaling vegetarian?

Don't be so critical, don't be so critical, don't be so critical, Thomas said silently, repeating her girlfriends' dating advice.

Three-quarters of the way through dinner, his cell phone began ringing.

"'Tell him not to do that,'" he whispered and hung up.

The phone rang again. And again. And again.

Finally Thomas teased her date: "Can't your wife wait until we finish dinner?"

As a matter of fact, her suave dining companion replied, "No. There's something going on with one of our kids."

A dumbstruck Thomas then listened as her date began spinning his admission in a positive light.

Sure, he was married. Sure, he had four kids. Sure, he lied a little. But hey, the vibe with Thomas was too good to ignore. They owed it to themselves, he told her, to give it a whirl. Then, he excused himself to the men's room.

"After sitting there for awhile, I finally asked the waiter to go find him," Thomas said. "But he was gone."

Stuck with a $100 dinner bill, Thomas had to call her brother in Bolton Hill to bail her out and drive her home.

"He lectured me all the way back to my car," Thomas said. "That was worse than the whole date itself."
On TV: Hooking Up

When: Tonight (and for the next three Thursday nights) at 9

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: An addictive and revealing look at online dating from the team that made Hopkins 24/7.