In the ‘quality’ era, there is respite in ‘The Bachelor,’ the most honest show on TV

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Ben Parker

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At some point in the next few weeks, the Republican primaries will have wrapped up, the nominee will be set, and the dizzying carousel of "surges" and gaffes and wingnuts will give way to the much more sedate spectacle of the two nominees pitching themselves to so-called independent voters. At that point, I suggest you switch the channel. The format that has made such a frivolous guilty pleasure of electoral politics lo these many months—the gradual narrowing of a field of vain, un-self-reflective phonies—persists on ABC's "The Bachelor," now midway through its sixteenth season. 

In what is being called a Golden Age of television, with glossy HBO and AMC single-camera dramas altering the cultural landscape such that "I’m so behind on 'Breaking Bad'" is the new "I don't even own a TV"—"The Bachelor" is a lumbering brontosaurus. Nothing could be less hip. Monstrously antifeminist, corny, and bloated (each episode is two hours long), it has all the intuitive appeal of the Holy Roman Empire. I've watched every minute of the last few seasons, including the spin-off "The Bachelorette"—even if this is only a little toe dipped into the sea of their twenty-three combined seasons. The show’s appeal is that most other reality TV offers up lives and locales (tattoo parlors, fashion designers, the mega-rich, the mega-fat, teen moms) that are hyperspecific and alien to most of us—while "The Bachelor," presenting head-on a dime-store romance set in exotic locales, lets slip through the High Definition cracks the grinding banality and burning humiliation of sharing oneself with another person. We all know these feelings.

This season of "The Bachelor" brings back one of the losing finalists from last season's "The Bachelorette," winemaker Ben F. His task, initially somewhat enviable, is to narrow down a group of 25 women in a series of "rose ceremonies"—the kind of frank elimination that dominates reality programming but is conspicuously absent in real life—culminating in a staged marriage proposal to one lucky lady. (In fact not a single contestant from the show has ever married its putative winner, although "The Bachelorette" has had better results.) 

As the season goes on, naturally, the break-ups become more real and less like the dismissal of game-show contestants. Each episode consists of a number of "dates"—what really are "challenges"—pitting a variable number of women (one, two, ten) against each other, while Ben ostensibly enjoys their company and gets to know them. In the later episodes of each cycle, the locations become more exotic (a "date" might be a safari, or hang-gliding through the canopy of the rainforest), providing a stunning high-definition backdrop to the awkwardness of breaking up with someone on national television. It is something of a tight-rope act to dump so many women and still appear likable. Ben F achieves this through a seriousness of purpose that borders on lecturing. When he sends home lightweights like Brittney and Elyse, the obvious message is that they need to “grow up.” 

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 "The Bachelor" is not in any way unique among reality shows—although it has been historically significant to the genre, inspiring Vh1's "Rock of Love" and Fox's much-reviled "Joe Millionaire." But "The Bachelor" is really much more like "The People's Court" or "Judge Judy" than it is like "Survivor" or "American Idol" or "Top Chef." Because the time one spends on the show forms a continuity with one's life before and after. Other reality shows either remove the contestants from reality (or promise to, by a grand prize for the winner) or, like "Keeping up with the Kardashians," have the almost avant-garde quality of Andy Warhol's films of the Empire State Building. You get the feeling the camera has just been left on, to capture whatever might transpire. And so millions of people have seen Lamar Odom eat soup on a couch. 

But the time spent on "The Bachelor" is still time that "counts": if you marry someone from the show, these unnatural arranged dates still really are the first dates you had with your spouse. So, like "Judge Judy" (or the various makeover shows), or the woods outside of Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "The Bachelor" occurs in an unreal space where problems are magically solved and the laws of reality don't pertain (real courtrooms and real dating are not like this)—where, nonetheless, everything is also continuous with one's real life (one has to abide by Judge Judy's rulings; getting dumped is still actually getting dumped, it isn't like being voted off a TV island). This season, during the silly group tasks (the girls play baseball in Puerto Rico, the winning team gets to then go out with Ben), Ben admits: these challenges don’t matter, I’m not trying to date the best catcher or shortstop. While these facets of the show can be tiresome—although I’m sure they test positively in some demographics—dating is also like this, gamely enduring someone else’s bad taste and bad knowledge of the city they live in. Not passing judgment or breaking the fourth wall is just the price of admission. 

It would be disingenuous to press too hard on the question, "What makes 'The Bachelor so fascinating?'" In truth, the show can be incredibly boring, best consumed in a state of distraction. Like many reality shows, footage of the competition is interspersed with running talking-heads commentary by the participants, essentially doing all the heavy lifting for the viewer. As in professional wrestling, we are not allowed for even a second to be in any kind of moral dark: our sympathies are thought out onscreen, each scene followed by a summary of its consequences. When this season’s villain, Courtney, lays out her nefarious ploys in advance, she speaks directly to the audience, like Richard III: “Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so, Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.” Except that Courtney is a total babe, rather than a hunchback, and instead of drowning infants, her masterstroke is to lure Ben into skinny-dipping with her. As a “scheme,” getting completely naked in front of someone is less tortuously Machiavellian than she seems to believe. 

Apart from being boring, "The Bachelor" can be hard to watch because it is so embarrassing. The first episode, where the Bachelor meets each contestant as she steps out of a limousine and tries to make a lasting impression on him, is a feast of mortifying one-liners and appalling gimmicks. The irrepressible temptation in meeting someone, evidently, is to clad oneself in all the least sexual and most confusing signifiers: I brought my grandmother with me! I'm from (some region of the country)! I'm a dentist and I brought floss! 

This unchecked, nervous eagerness to please can also be educational. The list of "do's" that one might glean from the show are perhaps dubious and specific to the show: do let your boyfriend fly across the country to meet another woman's family, do insist on receiving a rose at the end of every date as a signal of its success, do react with glee to statements like, "I feel that my wife is in this room!" But any list of the show's "don'ts" threatens to overwhelm the compiler. Provisionally, I can't recommend any of the following first-date strategies: rapping, explaining your tattoo, cackling, uttering the phrase "that's my cackle," or gazing into the eyes of a fellow bachelorette and telling her, "You are my life forever."

This is not to say that I have never shuddered with recognition, hearing my own dating logic expounded on the show, or seeing my own regrettable tendencies pushed to their limit by a bachelorette flaming towards self-destruction. In season 15, Chantal could never have won—it became apparent that Brad’s choice was long foreordained—but this didn’t stop her from bartering her dignity and her emotional substance to buy the semblance of a connection with this cipher/hunk. This was draining and shameful, but also annoyingly familiar. 

The most embarrassing moment of this season has been the scrapbook that Blakeley made to show Ben her affection. I had to bury my head under the covers as this 34-year-old woman explained how a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge symbolized the happy life they would have together. It couldn't have been worse if it had been in a Lisa Frank pony notebook and written in scented marker. 

With few exceptions, the women behave as though they were on their seventh-grade class trip. Almost all of their time is spent, not with the Bachelor, but with each other in hotel rooms, where they try to quietly dismantle each other psychologically. But it is all harmless posturing, especially if you have visited the "Bad Girls Club" on Oxygen Network, which is a really dark place. Most of the bachelorettes confine themselves to sitting around in sweatpants, drinking wine, and ranking who is pretty and who is slutty and who is fake. "Blakeley is someone you could take home and motorboat. That's it." (This is also true.)

Every girl on the show wants desperately to "get to know Ben"—so what do we learn about this Bachelor? We know that he is a winemaker in Sonoma, Calif. On top of this, the show stresses, he loves wine. And he loves Sonoma, California. He's extremely earnest. Everything is connected to his father's early death. He's in touch with his emotions, he's into "the process" of "The Bachelor," and his big brown eyes do not suggest that sarcasm has any place in his world. He has the cloistered naivete of a character that Tobey Maguire would play. He somehow gives off an air both of confidence and of being easily wounded: it's not that he is insecure, but he doesn't have any place or category for emotional harm-so he distributes it over his whole being. 

"The Bachelor"'s idea of romantic chemistry is almost the exact opposite of the phenomenon of the n +1 personals website. On the literary magazine's online classifieds page, readers painstakingly describe their bookshelves and liberal prejudices and one expects to read lots of entries that include the phrase "must love dogs." They are casting themselves as recognizable types from a Woody Allen movie; not searching for someone who shares every disdain (we could all stomach a Diane Keaton who consigned Mahler to the "Academy of the Overrated"), but for a sparring partner. Thus, an arch hyperspecificity about the narcissism of small cultural differences (Chabrol—but never Clouzot!) masks a presumed substrate of class and political homogeneity. New York's literate class may wish for someone with whom to debate Roland Barthes, but they will settle for someone who, on paper, likes the same brunch spots and clothing brands and would like to debate Roland Barthes, in theory, if it ever came to that; but if they look at the same Internet aggregators, that's probably enough to build something on, or not feel bad about in the morning anyway. 

"The Bachelor," on the other hand, is entirely voided of things like politics, culture, income, religion, worldview, or social concerns. Ben F. is a winemaker, but we will never learn what prejudices and preferences proceed from his refined palate (what in a real life date would be a definite cultural yardstick). When the show's producers arrange the inevitable private performance by a John Mayer-clone (Train last season, someone named Matt Nathanson this time), it is just assumed that both lovers are deeply swept up in this bland leisure-rock. Typical moments of real connection tend to be blurted-out universals: "I love Chinese food!" "I'm also afraid of heights!" But what they do have in common is that they are all on "The Bachelor," which is painted as a draining experience, something like the terrorist-rigged bus in Speed that brings Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock together on the basis of a shared trauma. Thus, everything proceeds in the name of "intimacy," but an intimacy depleted of any content except for one's feelings about the "process" itself. 

But this intimacy can go too far. In fact, no one wants intimacy in certain forms. So, in each of the first two episodes, Jenna, a New York-based blogger, uses her only time with Ben to explain that the emotional meltdown she is having before his eyes is "not how she really is." This hemorrhaging of apologies is all too obviously identical with the disastrous anxiety for which she is apologizing. In an insane way, this is a genuinely upsetting misunderstanding of authentic emotional sharing. Jenna, hysterical and perpetually on the verge of tears, simultaneously disowns her behavior ("I'm not usually like this") while at the same time she indulges in her own emotional over-exposure. To be sure, Jenna is a legion of red flags—but her contentless, almost autohypnotic freakout is only the bad version of the vacated "closeness" that the show thrives on. 

The price of intimacy here is admitting some horrible thing about one's past. Whether a woman has lost a parent or sibling, been divorced, or had an eating disorder, the show's order of getting undressed always involves first that one display one's emotional scars. It resembles a kind of blackmail, with Ben continually urging women to let their guard down or risk seeming like they are (in the show's most-repeated phrase) "not here for the right reasons." And woe to the woman with a trauma-less life, who cannot share some mundane horror of losing a loved one or having a bad memory.

Part of the show's appeal is just how awkwardly this intimacy, sped up by competition and the presence of TV cameras, unfolds. One particularly ungraceful candidate this season, Jamie, emphatically reminds Ben, "I've told you numerous times the great qualities you have." She then goes on to elaborate on the reasons that she is not kissing him at that moment. Never do this. When she finally decides to ratchet up her sexuality—at a point where Ben already has extremely sexualized relationships with all the other contestants—this involves her treating Ben like a patron of a strip club, straddling him in the least convincing, ungainly fashion. Ben advises her, "You can't keep laughing if you're going to try to make out with me." 

The drama (and the pleasure) of the show derives from moments like this, where the program's competitive schedule (a steady pace of eliminating women) is out of sync with the multiple emotional realities onscreen. It is like watching two gears move at different speeds. Sometimes the Bachelor can't get rid of the women fast enough, like Charlie Chaplin trying to turn screws in Modern Times. A certain number of the initial 25 contestants are just not pretty enough. In their minds, it is a matter of squeezing in extra conversation time, of impressing the Bachelor in subtle ways. No. They are doomed. Watching them cry in the cab on the way to the airport, deeply wounded after being dumped by someone they've spoken to for five minutes, makes for great TV. The monologue quickly turns into a painful, "What is wrong with me?"—a question that is in a way its own answer. 

At other times, the gears reverse. A bachelorette who never stood a chance somehow makes it quite far along in the process. Instead of being eliminated en masse, so much brush cleared away, she now has (incongruously) to be treated with some dignity. I will never forget the case of Britt last season. Almost all the surviving women were buxom and loudly broadcasting their feelings (deeply wounded, or deceitful, or affable, or morbid—something!). Britt, tiny, and introverted, was a marked woman. But when her turn came around for a one-on-one date, on a yacht in the middle of the Caribbean, she was unprepared. She had been kept around too long to be dismissed with a handshake, and so had to be told, person-to-person, that she was simply not wanted. As this must (up to that moment) have seemed like her personal fairytale, things got pretty ugly. The Bachelor couldn't, after all, tell her that her boobs weren't big (or fake) enough—this was so obviously the "problem." So he took the most chivalrous option still on the table: starting a fight. It was gross, and I felt gross afterwards. This was probably the highlight of the season: like watching Michael Corleone order the hit on Tessio. 

It's these variable speeds of emotional trajectory, seemingly just a byproduct of a well-honed formula, that break out into surprising moments of real hurt and stoney misunderstanding. At times, love is a pitched skirmish between small professional armies, as in the wars of the sixteenth century. At other times, it is like the muddy trench warfare of 1916, where every inch is a victory. Usually, like Napoleon, one is defeated long before one will admit it: an historical corpse still walking the earth, waiting for one's Waterloo to throw dirt on the body. On "The Bachelor," this fate awaits the inarticulate, the fake-breasted, the shy, and the scheming alike, sustained by the illusion that this is less cruel because it is inevitable.

Anyone approaching the show for the first time at this late date will bring with them a certain amount of irony. My subletter, discovering that I was engrossed in the show, asked how many of the women I thought were just on the show in order to be on TV. Blasphemer! And even if this were true, is that somehow different from real dating? Has no one ever dated or even married someone from such impure motives as vanity and self-exploitation? This supposed cynicism is really the position that believes in the fantasy.

But all of the “mediating” trappings and artificial game-show elements (what make it a “reality show,” after all)—though deserving of ridicule—can’t box out the defeat that awaits every person on screen. (It’s impossible not to feel that winning would be the worst fate of all.) In the end, discernible behind its direct, naive vision of romantic love, ludicrously rigged and set against a background of endless tropical sunsets, is a very familiar experience of human shittiness and hurt, an experience "The Bachelor" never betrays. It even zooms in on it.