Although I’m still reeling from ABC’s “The Bachelor,” I decided to give the network a second chance when I tuned in last Wednesday night (9/8 Central) for “The Bachelorette.” After all, I reasoned, the theme of this show is revenge: ABC is advertising it as a sort of forum for the women scorned by the bachelor. Meredith Philips, the star of this season’s “The Bachelorette,” is described on ABC’s website as a “romantic hopeful” from Bob Guiney’s season of “The Bachelor.” The advertising campaign leading up to the show’s premiere described an empowered Meredith as “turning the tables” on “the guys” by choosing a romantic partner from among the 25 men ABC assembled for this purpose. Now it’s the men’s turn to sweat it out in a brutal and humiliating competition for the love of a stranger! It sounded like fun to me.
Unfortunately, ABC failed to anticipate the major flaw in this concept: men are nowhere near as willing as women to be humiliated on national television, especially in the name of “love.” Men and women alike will grovel for money, but most men are unwilling to go to the mat for a woman, particularly one they barely know (and particularly when they are confident in their ability to find another, and perhaps even a better one, elsewhere). Her high-powered modeling career notwithstanding (she’s made the Land’s End catalogue and the packaging of Microsoft’s Digital Image Pro) there is nothing terribly unique about Meredith, and the men seem to know it.
Not that the men are unique. Meredith makes much of the fact that she is faced with a very difficult task. I assume she is referring to remembering the men’s names, given that they are virtually indistinguishable. One is black, which might help set him apart, but other than that, the uniformity of physical appearance, career “achievements,” and general attitude is overwhelming. They speak entirely in clichés; either they are literally unable to think, or ABC is feeding them patronizingly dumb lines. It is a matter of small importance which of these is true: at best, they are brainless automata; at worst, they are conniving, manipulative, deceitful weasels. Not one evinces any non-rehearsed sign of human warmth or even vitality. The fact that their very names are comically similar (there are at least two Ryans, addressed respectively as “Ryan M.” and “Ryan R.”) exacerbates a central flaw of the show: these men have no discernible personalities. In fact, it would be easier for everyone if the executives at ABC would simply number them, as they did on the old dating shows, instead of assigning them names and “personalities” (Robert speaks Spanish; Todd, Ryan R., and Rick enjoy snowboarding). The clear lack in these men of any meaningful personal identity poses a challenge to the viewer, who is supposed to care about these people. It is difficult enough to care for the perpetually smiling, perfectly made-up Meredith, who is about as engaging as a stuffed animal and half as lovable, but to care which of these vain and vapid, money-grubbing oafs (many of them ex-hockey players or investment bankers, not that there’s anything wrong with that) ends up with the plastic princess is almost impossible.
Why do men participate at all? The cynical answer is money, publicity, and increased sexual opportunity due to exposure to an overwhelmingly female audience. But maybe some men buy into the show’s promise of happiness too; is it possible that there are men out there who are just as tired of the dating “scene,” just as sick of phoniness and superficiality and shallow connections? Ready to get off of that treadmill and find “the woman of their dreams” – ironically, in the phoniest of all possible settings? I’m skeptical, but it is a possibility. How sad that the most creative way they could find to escape dating hell was to go on “The Bachelorette.”
Not since antiquity has the human race devised such intricately appalling, savage forms of entertainment. We may be denied actual blood and viscera (though not on some shows) but we are promoting a brand of crass manipulation distinguished as much by its cheap, sledgehammer psychology as by its sheer brutality. No one wins with “The Bachelorette,” least of all its viewers.
Many critics have written about the general cultural coarsening that both feeds and is accelerated by the reality television craze. The alarm has been sounded; Americans are supposedly glutted with these programs, and most sophisticated (some might say snobbish) people claim to be nauseated by them. But one cannot blame this phenomenon entirely on the television executives. Executives do not spawn these shows, nor do the shows thrive, in a vacuum. It can of course be argued that network executives manipulate, create, and even dictate public taste, but, based on the proliferation of websites, letters to the editor of People magazine, and other yardsticks of popular interest, it would seem that there exists a certain amount of organic hunger for this type of programming.
Have these shows succeeded because media executives, with their characteristic low cunning, have managed to tap into a bottomless well of bitter, bloodthirsty schadenfreude? This is certainly one reason for the success of shows like “The Bachelorette,” but I suspect that there are other reasons, and that they are more pathetic and less sinister. The idea that one can find true love by choosing among the twenty-five most telegenic candidates with the most attractive résumés is heartbreaking in its naïve desperation. The show constantly reinforces in its hapless participants the self-defeating premise that there is only right person in the world for you, and if you can’t find him on this show, with all of these handpicked, pre-screened, amazing bachelors, you are a failure indeed. The show’s success depends on effectively selling this ludicrous concept both to participants and an audience already willing and even eager to believe it. After all, it would make life so much simpler if the formula for true love could be reduced to simple algorithm: round up twenty five of a certain kind of man, add money, scenery, artifice, and imagination, and divide by the arithmetically determined quantity of how badly you want to get married to the mythical Mr. Right.
“Reality television” is of course a misnomer. The appeal of television is, after all, that it is not real life; that it allows you to feel things without experiencing the messy, complex emotional hangovers and everyday boring details of real life. With TV, you can laugh, cry, lust, and even fall vicariously in love, but, as long as you are doing all this from the comfort and safety of your own living room instead of in the real world (not the one on MTV), you do not run the risk of being embarrassed, ashamed, rejected, hurt, or disappointed, nor do you have to face the boredom and tedium inevitably concomitant with so many of life’s richest experiences.