Being born during a certain era sometimes allows you a unique opportunity to ride a cultural wave, something you might talk about in your golden years as “the golden years.” People who came of age in the Sixties had the hippie experience, but having come along a bit later, I might someday reminisce about two things—first, the internet revolution, and what it was like to suddenly be able to communicate with people around the world, instantly; and second, that I witnessed the birth of reality television.
Mostly due to exhaustion with sitcoms and hourlong dramas, as well as the physical and mental exhaustion of wanting to just plop in front of the TV, regardless of what’s on, I was there at the beginning. I’d seen the Louds on An American Family, but that was just a trial run. In 1992, I watched MTV’s The Real World, and in 2000, I watched the first season of Survivor, recording it on a VCR and fast forwarding through commercials, feeling like the king of the world.
In 2002, The Bachelor debuted, marking the beginning of a period that for me, is—and I hope, will forever remain—the high-water mark of low TV.
There was Bachelorettes in Alaska, which was pretty much what it sounds like. There was Mr. Personality, in which men courted women while wearing masks. There was The Surreal Life, The Littlest Groom, Beauty and the Geek, and the fantastically named Tool Academy, in which men who thought they were competing for the title of “Mr. Awesome” were actually sent to charm school. If this is reality, it’s no wonder I have a generally dim view of humanity.
All of those shows have come and gone, but The Bachelor (and its offspring The Bachelorette) still remains a guilty pleasure that offers much to instruct neophytes to the world of relationships:
1) Love is dangerous.
Relationships on reality shows happen at an accelerated pace, and there’s no better way to quickly figure out if you care about someone than to put them in danger. Past dates on The Bachelor have included skydiving, bungee jumping, and confronting fears of all sorts, with the nearly scripted result being a closer bond between the two participants. Let’s face it, someone would have to be pretty horrible to justify not hugging them as they tearfully confront their worst fears. This situation typically leads to doe-eyed expressions of how amazing a person is because he or she spoke with calm reassurance while rappelling down the side of a building. There are also plenty of metaphors, with observations like, “jumping off a cliff is just like falling in love.” Ok, sure. Or it’s just like falling.
2) The spectrum of love.
In recent decades, we’ve learned to diagnose autism and other disorders not just in black-and-white, binary, yes or no terms, but as a spectrum of associated behaviors, ranging from mild to severe. In the world of The Bachelor, love is a similar disorder, with a graduated series of checkpoints eventually leading to a full-on, all-out pronouncement of affection. First, there’s the admission that “I think I might be beginning to fall for you,” followed by the more definitive “I’m starting to fall for you.” Finally, the L word is mentioned, but in distinctly noncommittal terms: “I may be falling in love with you,” or “I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with you.” Much rarer is the observation “I’ve fallen in love with you,” and no one yet has used the phrase I’d love to hear, “I’ve fallen for you, and I can’t get up.”
3) The right reasons.
The worst thing one can be accused of, in Bachelor-land, is not being on the show “for the right reasons.” Originally, this meant someone not seeking a relationship that could lead to marriage, but has since become a catch-all for every scummy behavior one can imagine, from two-timing another love interest to coming on the show to advance one’s music, comedy, or wrestling career. One can imagine a job interview involving two fervent Bachelor fans, going something like this:
“So, what are the reasons you’re seeking this job today?”
“Umm… the right reasons?”
“Oh my God! Did you see last week’s show? You’re hired!”
4) The English language is tricky.
Personal pronouns are not a strong point among the cast of The Bachelor, with dates regularly described in tortured terms, such as “He and I’s date was fantastic,” and “Him and I have a lot more in common.” Added bonuses include made-up words like “disingenuine,” and debates over misused ones like a recent thriller about “quirks” vs. “quarks” vs. “corks.”
5) Better to end it definitively.
A semi-regular occurence on The Bachelor involves an eliminated contestant sneaking back to the Bachelor’s residence and asking for another chance. I attribute this to a mistake in the way these contestants are eliminated; the refusal to grant a rose (required for ongoing suitorship) is apparently not a firm enough method of rejection, leaving hope in the hearts of these people for just a bit more screen time. Better are the show’s occasional masterpieces of rejection, with the dismissed cast member left alone on a remote island, cliff, or glacier, as The Bachelor (or Bachelorette) and camera crew depart via helicopter. It makes for good television, and leaves no doubt—nor means of passage—for the rejected suitor.
The Bachelor is still going strong, and as long as the spectacle of human behavior continues to entertain (and educate), I’ll keep watching. When this season’s done, there won’t be time for withdrawal pains—season 4 of the show’s spinoff, Bachelor in Paradise, starts in early August, and I just found out that Beauty and the Geek has British and Australian versions that I’ve never seen. With regard to television, at least, it seems I’ll never lose touch with reality.
Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com, and his previous Hamilton Post columns can be read at mercerspace.com. His idea for a writing reality show, with exciting video footage of writers sitting at their desks, is not yet in production.