(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Jessica Jardine looks at a top 10 summer series among younger viewers, The Bachelorette.)
There are a lot of angles to approach a show like The Bachelor or its more recent counterpart, The Bachelorette but the most obvious way to understand its longstanding appeal is pure and simple voyeurism. Of course, that admittedly super broad analysis pretty much sums up all reality TV but getting to the core of what makes The Bachelorette so consistently popular — and such a reliable feed to the tabloids/pop culture landscape — means identifying what kind of voyeurism it provides. As people who are, for the most part, supposed to be looking for some kind of lasting romance in our lives, it seems to me that the show taps into the most basic thing we like to do: avoid actually making moves in our own lives and, instead, sit and critique the moves of those around us.
And before you think I’m up on high wagging my finger over all this, I’ll readily admit that’s a fair thing to want to do! After all, isn’t that what a lot of us are doing with our friends, family members and co-workers throughout the bulk of our adult lives? Quietly taking note of they way they conduct themselves in their romantic relationships or as single people and trying to figure out if they’re headed for splitsville or have it all figured out? Trying to understand why people we love and know behave the way they do in the pursuit or love and/or sex is as reasonable a pastime as anything else. There’s something so instantly soothing about getting to do the same thing — this time with a group of unfathomably good looking twenty- and thirty-somethings — once a week, for weeks on end via a couch and TV. There awaits perfectly gorgeous people who look headed for love, only to blunder it all in the moment it matters most and head back to square one. Or, fight their way through the crowd of suitors to win it all! It’s a formula so simple, it makes sense this franchise has been one of the most long-running in reality TV.
So, by just popping in for the season finale of this season’s Bachelorette —featuring the perky dentist Ashley, who also happens to be the runner-up from the most recent season of The Bachelor — there’s plenty to absorb. How much, you ask? How about two whopping hours of prime time television, jammed full of tropical beaches, candlelit rooms and voice-over explanations of every bit of action taking place.
Anyone who has passed tabloids or spent a good deal of time on the internet the past eleven weeks might have garnered that poor Ashley has had a rough time during her go as The Bachelorette. Most notably, there was a grade-A jerk named Bentley, early on, who pushed the limits of TV-dating cruelty by comparing Ashley to the gorgeous blonde, Emily, whom she lost Bachelor Brad Womack to. Bentley also delivered nuggets like, “I’m gonna' make Ashley cry. I hope my hair looks okay” and called her an “ugly duckling.” Just like our real-life female friends, a perfectly nice girl encountered a horrifying jerk who tricked her into thinking he cared about her.
While he likely endures slaps left and right from horrified women back in the real world — and probably just as many numbers slipped to him — Ashley has picked up the pieces and moved on. Also, her show was filming so she had to keep the competition moving, people!
So, here we are with J.P., who looks like an older, surfer version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the boyishly cute Ben, battling it out for the chance to propose to Ashley. The season had them traveling everywhere from Hong Kong to Taiwan, landing in Fiji for its final stop. Just moments in, there’s Ashley narrating and letting us know that she’s “getting closer to the happy ending I always dreamed of.” In case you didn’t know what that meant, she continues, “I’m ready to walk away with my husband.” She also adds, “I’m so excited to get engaged in the South Pacific.” Got it?!
The final step before the whole down-on-one-knee thing is for these two men to meet Ashley’s family, who’ve been flown out to the tropical island to mostly sit in direct sunlight and sweat profusely on camera. We’re talking forehead and neck wipe-downs with sweaty rags in scene. There’s a quick meeting between the more reserved J.P. and Ashley’s family, where he’s forced to answer unbearably probing questions from her sister Chrystie like “Are you smitten?” Eek. Things get understandably awkward when J.P. doesn’t pull out the charm like Ashley hoped, leading her sister to voice concern and declare him to be the dreaded “Not the One,” when they meet next. Ashley powers through tears and disappointment to bring in Ben, who bonds more naturally with her family and looks to be the frontrunner.
And that’s right where you’re supposed to be, trusting Ashley’s cute-as-a-button face to give clues as to who she might chose in the final moments. There’s a lot of slow build-up between the parent meeting and that final proposal moment, involving two more one-on-one dates with her beaus and a lot of talk about what everyone has experienced on “this journey,” which just starts to sound like a convenient synonym for “this show.”
There are also just so many strange, strange moments that can feel especially hard to jump into so late in the season, like when Ben tells Ashley’s family that they first clicked “on the group date at the orphanage.” That’s probably a line parents hear a lot, right? Or when she forces him to talk in a terrifying “dog voice” alongside her while her family nearly passes out from laughter watching. There are also phrases like “we shared a kiss” (Ashley describing what happened after Ben said “I love you.”) and “this is the first chapter to the greatest love story ever told.” Not like you didn’t know, but there are also an assortment of shots featuring Ashley thoughtfully walking alone on the beach and both men staring at the engagement ring they’ve each picked out for their proposals.
And, hey, why not throw jeweler Neil Lane in the ring, too, for the whole process of picking out those aforementioned rings. Who better to act as a confidant and shoulder to cry on than everyone’s good friend, jeweler Neil Lane? Good thing there’s so much talk of “feeling confident” and “ready for what’s ahead.” Of course, we viewers know that means what the end of any competitive reality show heralds: time to declare a winner and a loser.
Sure enough, the finish line appears and it’s a gorgeous beach spot that’s surrounded by perfectly placed flowers (go prop department!) and an ocean so blue it could be the syrup they pour on Icees. There are helicopter rides in and tuxedos and a flowy, pinkish dress for Ashley covered in ostrich feathers. Then there’s the squirm-inducing, truly awful moment Ben proposes… and finds out he’s taking home the silver. It’s drawn out and full of surprisingly realistic sadness and embarrassment. There are even lines that feel true to life like when he says, “What I don’t need you to do is sugarcoat it,” after Ashley pathetically reminds him that he’s so “great” and “interesting” when he tries to leave post-proposal-refusal.
Then, before you can feel too sad, it’s time to celebrate L-O-V-E! J.P. emerges victorious, gets to successfully propose to Ashley and it’s like Ben’s awful humiliation never happened. The sun delivers the most glorious sunset, lips lock, and the killer helicopter shots reign victorious as another season of The Bachelorette calls it a day. Boy, it’s exhausting.
That’s just how we want to feel, too: Spent by the emotional rollercoaster of love and its many peaks and valleys but, you know, from a comfortable viewing position. Even with all its intensely obvious manufacturing, The Bachelorette delivers the equivalent to a months-long romantic comedy. Instead of two-hours with professional actors delivering scripted lines, there’s the feeling of a bunch of people just like us —still suspiciously better looking and with headshots— having gone through the risks and rewards of seeking out real love. Even the most casual viewer knows those are the promised goods being delivered.
For me, it’s not unbearable by any stretch. The production value of a show like this means it’s practically a travel show with no shortage of breathtaking locations used for “dates.” There are also all the requisite characters to make up any decent reality show: villains, crazies, sweethearts, and wild cards. If anything, it’s just the commitment a show like this requires to be satisfying to watch. Eleven weeks of checking in on date after date as Ashley whittles down a whopping 30 men to her eventual fiancée is no joke time-wise, especially given all of the After the Final Rose specials, too.
Maybe that’s the point. It’s a commitment that may be demanding and, at times, laughably transparent, but one that keeps hanging in there, year after year. There’s also the fact that the last Bachelorette Ali and her chosen suitor Roberto have beaten the franchise’s odds by remaining together since last August. In Bachelor/Bachelorette years, that’s practically a lifetime of love.