We are deep enough into the evolution of reality TV that producers and network executives acknowledge, promote, and celebrate their programs’ artificiality and/or dodgy morals. There’s no shame in being a little trashy, because the market proved the value of being so years ago. Plus, as Emily Yoshida discussed a few weeks ago, the qualities that make these shows ridiculous don’t negate their emotional pull. Sincerity, whether genuine or feigned, serves function in reality TV.
ABC’s The Bachelor (along with its sibling The Bachelorette), which finishes up its 16th season tonight, stands out for professing that its format accomplishes something truly meaningful. Over the course of a season, as contestants go on a series of one-on-one and group dates with their network-appointed object of desire (Bay Area winemaker Ben Flajnik, this season), host Chris Harrison and the assorted cast focus on the importance and joy of making a connection, growing together on their journey, and living out a fairytale. It’s reality TV’s version of a Nicholas Sparks book, only with more kisses in the rain and no manipulative deaths.
The series might pull off this narrative if it hadn’t already proven to be a terrible way for two people to form a lasting relationship. Of the 15 completed seasons of The Bachelor, only three have led to long-term relationships, and just one of those couples remains together. (Incidentally, that Bachelor dumped his in-season pick and chose his now-wife at the “After The Final Rose” end-of-season special.) The Bachelorette, with a two-for-seven line, hasn’t done much better. While some of the difficulty can be ascribed to what happens when two fairly normal people get tabloid-level famous, some of the blame has to fall on series itself. For all the claims of sincerity and belief in love, The Bachelor is best at enforcing its bizarre mythology and brand. As long as the trappings of romantic bliss are present, the viability of the relationship doesn’t matter. Image is everything.
At every step, The Bachelor’s format ensures that its love story will progress at the pace of the show’s eight-week shooting schedule. Given those time constraints, that means that the 25 contestants must be put in a situation to fall in love quickly. For the most part, that involves withholding the Bachelor from them as much as possible, creating a situation in which the very notion of alone time changes from a one-on-one date—an event so rare that it’s not even worth hoping for until halfway through the season—to asking to “steal him away” during each episode’s cocktail parties and group dates. In the early going, the competition this season wasn’t so much for Ben’s feelings as for his attention, which turns every small conversation into a watershed moment in the relationship.
Within that structure, the Bachelor cannot help but seem desirable, particularly because the show’s producers make sure to put him in stereotypically romantic or sexy situations. At various points in this last season, Bachelor Ben—a successful, fit guy who looks like a cross between tennis star Rafael Nadal and Alfalfa—has ridden in on horseback to welcome the women to Park City (to “show these women the great outdoors,” as if they’d never been outside), worn nothing but a loincloth during a group date in Panama, and taken three women on a giant yacht to do little more than sun themselves. These are not activities that communicate Ben’s interests to the women, unless those interests boil down to getting rich and doing whatever the hell he wants. These are pure fantasies, and not even particularly creative ones at that. They communicate desirability in the most generic way possible.
The same goes for the show’s travel itinerary, which packs so many destinations into 10 episodes that it’s easy to wonder how no one ever looks jetlagged. Nearly everything is so picturesque that it could double as part of a travel advertisement, from a trolley ride through San Francisco (on streets that don’t have real trolley tracks) to this season’s closing episodes in the Alpine wonderland of Interlaken, Switzerland. What’s important here isn’t so much that these locales are beautiful, but that the whirlwind tour through various iterations of paradise suggests that there should be a progression of love, or that these are all places where people are supposed to find lasting happiness. The Bachelor’s producers effectively engineer an assault on their contestants’ romantic faculties, to the point where not falling for this supposedly amazing man on three successive white-sanded beaches must be a sign of some sort of personality defect.
Still, this environment is merely the stage for the series’ cockeyed conception of what love looks like. The Bachelor emphasizes the importance of a couple being on a journey and creating intimacy through the crucible of conflict. And yet these situations are not moments of conflict as much as chances for the women to show their Bachelor that they’ll do anything to prove their devotion to him. In this season, dates have involved climbing up the Bay Bridge, jumping from a helicopter into a crater (that led into a beautiful natural swimming area, obviously), and swimming with sharks. That all the women overcame their fears, and that they did so while trusting in Ben, proves that they feel strongly about him. But casting these lasting memories as acts of overcoming conflict together is flatly wrong, if not insulting to the difficulties that normal couples have to work through every day. In truth, these camera-ready dates are more like The Bachelor’s version of reality TV’s weekly challenges, in which failing to complete a task puts a contestant up for elimination.
Ben had already told the show’s producers that he wanted to do these things, or that he was fine with their suggestions, leaving it up to the women to prove that they’re worthy of him. The conflict experienced by most couples involves substantive disagreements over important life choices, or being faced with an unforeseen challenge that can only be overcome by trusting in each other and working through it. On The Bachelor, the women must match their man, and the only decision they must make is one they reached long ago: that they’re willing to do whatever the series asks of them to find love. If that requires acting in a way they never would if given the choice, or submitting to a two-inning softball game to win time with Ben because “group dates are hard,” then so be it.
The Bachelor himself, of course, remains a Teflon Don Juan. Nicki, the second runner-up, noted on last Monday’s “The Women Tell All” special that she still thinks Ben is the best man she’s ever met, completely disregarding that he dumped her on national TV while giving no clear signals that he might be more into the other two women. A few minutes later, Jamie, a nurse from New York, told Ben that she’d love to get to know him better if things didn’t work out with his chosen mate. Never mind the fact that, when she finally did try to get to know him better days before her dismissal from the show, he completely stopped paying attention to her to ogle Courtney, a professional model who just happened to jump in the pool in a bikini. Love blinds people to faults outside of reality TV, too, but the end of a relationship typically brings some clarity. For whatever reason, that perspective becomes difficult to come by in this situation.
To put it another way, The Bachelor issues a perverse purity test to all its contestants. The most fascinating moment this season wasn’t when Ben didn’t give a rose to a woman who seemed to deserve one, but when Chris Harrison confronted Casey, a sweet girl from Kansas, over the fact that three people in the United States had told people involved with the show—presumably love investigators on the order of the existential detectives in I [Heart] Huckabees—that she might have a complicated relationship with an ex-boyfriend. Anyone who’s been in love holds onto some feelings for that person, even if things ended badly. Harrison, in effect, asked Casey to disregard her romantic history and devote herself entirely to Ben, apparently oblivious to the fact that The Bachelor is only dramatic if the audience believes a person can be attracted to multiple people at the same time. When Ben recommended that Casey leave before the next rose ceremony, it was easy to feel that she was taking the healthier way out. Why should she stay on a show that wanted her to reject her past? Would any self-respecting boyfriend ask her to pretend her ex didn’t exist?
It’s in these moments when the outside world intrudes that The Bachelor looks especially small and formulaic. When Ben visited the small Tennessee hometown of apparent frontrunner Kacie, he quickly learned that her teetotaler parents were the type of people who voted for Gingrich in the state’s GOP primary. Suddenly, the connection he felt with Kacie didn’t jibe quite so well with the rest of his life. And while that episode’s rose-ceremony elimination was fairly abrupt, with Kacie unleashing a limo-ride rant to the airport that her parents almost certainly wouldn’t have approved of, she did get closure the next week after surprising Ben at his Switzerland hotel. The meeting was contrived, but the conversation itself, in which Ben explained why he made his choice, was colored by real-world thinking in a way all previous conversations between the two hadn’t been. Removed from the pressure of competition, they could talk like adults. After weeks of seeing their love story take shape, the rawness of it all was refreshing.
Tonight, Ben is faced with the decision between Lindzi, a business development manager from Seattle whose unfortunate name belies her pleasant disposition and easygoing approach to the series, and Courtney, the aforementioned model who raised the ire of all but a few other contestants for an aloof nature, copious insults, and generally giving the impression that she’s on the show because she wants to win, not because she wants to find love. It’s hard to argue with that last point: While Courtney might feel something for Ben, she also quite shamelessly snuck away from the rest of the group for a clandestine skinny-dip in Puerto Rico, walked around with her nipples showing on a group date in Belize, and staged a fake wedding on her hometown visit with vows cribbed from the finale of Sex And The City.
It’s easy to dislike Courtney—compared to Lindzi, or any of the other final five or six women, she seems like a fairly intolerable person. However, on a series like this one, where the format demands sincerity of its contestants only to exploit it to create a simulacrum of love, the sheer TV-ness of Courtney is admirable, if not entirely likable. Put simply, she’s the only one who seems to realize that she’s on a reality show, and that the “engagement” of the season finale is only a prelude to figuring out if she could ever be in a relationship with that person in the real world. Whether or not she wins—and you can do an easy Google search to find out, if you don’t care to watch—she’s already beaten The Bachelor at its own game. On a show like this one, the best way to keep your dignity is by acting as shamelessly as possible.