(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, Steve Heisler drops in on the latest season premiere of perennial reality hit The Bachelor. Next week, Noel Murray checks out the highest-rated syndicated game show for decades, Wheel Of Fortune.)
Gamblers never learn from their mistakes.
When The Bachelor debuted in 2002, it was a tentpole in this new-fangled genre of entertainment known as "reality TV." For the first time, some schmoe could find himself surrounded by a bevvy of nondescript blondes who wanted nothing more than to stick their tongues down his throat, or perhaps sit in soft lighting and sultrily close a curtain, if you know what I'm sayin'. Reality TV was a way to get instant exposure, even if no one had quite figured out yet that the exposure was fleeting, at best.
But for a completely different selfish reason, The Bachelor represented an avenue to as close to a fairy tale as any of these people could conceive of. Television had always been a place where the impossible was possible, where deeply complicated emotional moments could be reduced to pithy exchanges, where comebacks were always at the ready, friends stuck around for life, and love prevailed a solid 99 percent of the time. The Bachelor was a way to have the storybook romance for yourself, as long as you were okay with millions of people watching at home.
Though maybe it was because they were watching. Reality TV operates on the principle that if you get enough people together and promise them something spectacular—love, fame, money (aka opportunity)—they will blindly endure any trial for a shot at the goods. And because these are real people, the emotion at the end is going to be staggeringly real. I read some book in college about how the mark of a truly great play is how engrossing it is in its last seven minutes, when you've forgotten that you're, in fact, sitting in a theater watching actors do their thing. Those seven minutes are seared in your brain, and The Bachelor's final seven minutes, so to speak—to say nothing of the many times contestants spend seven minutes in heaven, if you once again know what I'm sayin'—are pure, unadulterated love. The clarity of those final moments are made even sharper by the audience's presence; it's clear because it has to be.
Love conquers all on The Bachelor. In theory. Reading the Wikipedia page for The Bachelor—a show debuting its 15th (!) season tonight—is not something I'd recommend to the blind romantics in the world. No season has resulted in a successful match, with the possible exception being season 13 when Jason Mesnick surprised everyone by shacking up with the runner-up instead of the "winner." Most entries on the Wikipedia page read something like, "[Male] did not propose to [female]. They decided to take a chance at just a relationship. They broke up shortly after the show aired." Having seen none of the previous seasons—maintaining an awareness through The Soup and a sick, former fascination with vague copycats like Joe Millionaire and Beauty & The Geek—I was under the, I suppose, false impression that The Bachelor = a love machine (one that won't work for nobody but you). I was surprised to see all that documented proof to the contrary. Clearly, none of tonight's suitors were aware of this, or they didn't care.
Nor, seemingly, does the new beau. Season 11 is another odd one: Brad Womack, notable handsomeman and dead ringer for The Room's Greg Sestero, chose none of the final two candidates. He has been given a second chance at finding love this season, which expands the lady roster to an unwieldy 30 and thus ensures a healthy two hours of television every week.
The Bachelor has never been a show about subtlety. A sizable portion of tonight's first hour addresses what's transpired in the three years since Brad's controversial decision. Like everyone in America, he was also under the impression that The Bachelor led to an engagement, or at the very least, earth-shattering love forever. When that didn't happen, Brad entered into a deep funk, too depressed to work and questioning what about himself was causing such a fear of commitment. He did some soul searching, went to see a therapist, did some soul searching, hung out shirtless, did some soul searching, and has decided he's finally truly ready to fall in love after much soul searching. He explains multiple times that he doesn't regret what happened. It taught him a valuable lesson about himself and gave him the clarity to get to where he is now. This time will be different, he says. Oh, perhaps it's also worth mentioning, as he does, that he did some soul searching.
There's a lot of stopping and starting in this premiere. Even after Brad finally arrives back in Los Angeles after that long-winded introduction, he's plopped down on the couch by host Chris Harrison and asked questions about his current mental state that he pretty much answered in the previous segment. In a shocking twist (only not really), Harrison also brings out Jenni Croft and DeAnna Pappas, the two women Brad rejected, for a brief chat. Brad apologizes, Jenni wishes him luck, DeAnna admits skepticism, and Brad talks about his soul, and how it was searched. They cordially hug.
At this point, we're already at the halfway point of the episode (minus some cursory introductions to a few of the women, which I'll discuss in a bit), and I've realized a few ominous things. For starters, Harrison, by either hinting at it or directly saying it, has positioned The Bachelor once again as the show you watch to see two people fall in love. There will be love, in measured and consistent quantities. It's very strange, even after 15 seasons, to know that on The Bachelor, true love is something that can be objectively observed.
Also: Brad's kind of a dud. Or, rather, he comes across as someone who's been supremely media trained, as I'm sure he has not only for this new season, but the entire one before. He answers questions with a hearty smile and a purposeful, "That's a great question, asker." After meeting each girl out on the driveway (in front of a penis fountain that looks like it was lifted from the courtyard on Chuck), he's ready to assure them that, yes, he is looking forward to chatting with them further, and, yes, that interesting or quirky thing she did to catch his attention affected him in an appropriate and specific way. The Bachelor's strings are still visible.
The arrival of the women demonstrates just how unruly the show can be. Only a handful were introduced with videos from their hometown, briefly telling their stories. The vast majority mark their entrance by exiting one of several limos, and taking a few moments to set themselves apart. Only a few stood out, and they were the really weird ones: The first girl slapped Brad on behalf of women everywhere. Another told Brad that America hates him. One had fangs. Everyone else noted something about Brad's past and expressed optimism that things would be different this time, to which Brad had his stock assurances at the ready. This went on for a long time; there were many nondescript blondes.
Still, it was much more enjoyable to have these new, far less predictable elements finally on the show, and it made me realize that The Bachelor has never truly been about the guy. He's the face of the franchise in hindsight, but the contestants are the ones given the opportunity to showcase their personalities. They can be themselves, whereas Brad can only be Brad as it pertains to how he interacts with these girls. At one point, for example, Renee (there's an accent in there, but I forgot where) is upset that her alone time with Brad is being interrupted by other girls. She makes a few attempts to steal Brad back, and she's thwarted at every turn. Brad, meanwhile, is simply the pawn in the whole exercise, or he sets himself up to not take a hard stance on the matter in either direction. His story is already written by the producers and by the marketing team; these girls are free to write it as they go along.
Once again, the solid majority of this next segment (Brad casually chatting with all the girls as he decides who's gonna stick around) feels far too forced to garner anything interesting. A few moments stand out. The Renee thing was entertaining for showcasing how maddening even the very early stuff can be. Madison, the girl with fangs who says weird things, was asked point-blank by Brad if she's taking the competition seriously, a rare moment of clarity in the show's proceedings. In other self-awareness news, Jackie—the one who kind of looks like Rachel from Glee and serendipitously is a singer (but doesn't do well on TV)—comments that she's not feeling like herself.
I suppose this leads me to discussion on the two ways I could see myself watching The Bachelor. First, as a student of social psychology. I'm fascinated by the way the show makes people behave in such uncharacteristic ways. In everything we do, our behavior is far more influenced by the situation we're in than our personality, and The Bachelor—all of reality TV for that matter—is one endless case study on that subject. Like, one of the girls, eliminated by Brad in round one, cries into the camera at the loss of love. She truly doesn't know this guy; she barely knows herself in that moment. Yet she cries. There's also the sense that these women know about Brad's past misgivings before they meet him. He publicly dumped two women. Can you imagine how many people have done that in their lives privately (not necessarily at the same time)? It's a list that includes everyone. These women know, though, and thus, it's much more of a dark mark on his past than it would be if, say, they found out many months into dating him. But at the same time, his mistake is something the girls have to come to terms with immediately for the game to continue. Remorse on The Bachelor, like love, is also suddenly quantifiable.
Then there's the second way I could see myself watching the show, which is: I already started.
It reminds me of gambling. Sure, I know gambling is stupid. I understand the psychology behind it. I'm led to believe I have a chance, when I truly do not. Slot machines don't have a memory; blackjack dealers are not my friends. I know that in order to keep my head, or anything, above water, I have to set not only the maximum amount I'm willing to lose, but also the maximum amount I'm willing to win before calling it quits. I have to have a well-thought-out strategy, and even then, it's all largely a crap shoot. Literally.
I know all this, and yet, when I'm sitting there at the table, in the moment, it's so easy to forget it all. (This has nothing to do with my losses last week in Vegas… NOTHING, I TELL YOU!!!) For a split second, I think I can win. It's going to be different. I'm going to be the lucky one. I know it.
If the core of The Bachelor is to match a winning woman up with the presumably winning guy, there have been 14 failed seasons. This evidence suggests a zero percent chance of this season being a success. Yet Brad is not only giving it a go anyways, he's giving it a go for the second time. And everyone at home is following along, eager for that moment of pure fairy tale bliss and thinking, "This will be different. He's going to be the lucky one. I know it."