Will it be Helene or Brooke, and will the Chosen One live happily ever after with the princely Aaron?

Here's a better question: Why are millions of people so riveted by this spectacle of cattiness, humiliation and general female degradation played out against a backdrop of cheesy "Dream Date" cliches?

By reducing courtship and matrimony to a Darwinian TV sport, "The Bachelor" may be the ickiest commentary on modern relationships since "Temptation Island." There's no denying, however, that it's also a hugely popular one. This season's version, with Missouri banker Aaron Buerge in the title role, is one of only two shows on ABC to crack Nielsen's top 25 (the other is "Monday Night Football," which offers a different kind of bodily contact).

Unlike with football, it is female viewers who follow "The Bachelor" like obsessed fans. During last week's telecast, which drew 13.3 million people, women outnumbered men in "The Bachelor's" audience by more than 3 to 1. Many women say they watch the show communally, in groups as large as a dozen, offering running commentary on the proceedings. Can there be any doubt that tonight's two-hour finale (Channel 7 at 9 p.m.) -- in which Buerge, 28, will make the love connection with either school psychologist Helene Eksterowicz or college student Brooke Smith -- will be the functional equivalent of a chick Super Bowl?

Created by Mike Fleiss, a cousin of notorious L.A. madam Heidi Fleiss, "The Bachelor" resembles nothing so much as a contemporary harem. Each week, the bachelor dates several eager young lovelies. From the original field of 25, he pares the flock, week by week, offering the survivors a rose and the losers a don't-let-the-door-hit-you hug. The women, meanwhile, hang out in a ritzy Malibu villa, where they dream and scheme against one another, angling for the affection of the guy they've just met.

"I want a big rock on my finger," contestant Heather Cranford confessed with laser-like intensity at one point this season. "I see the house, the wife, the mother, the picket fence. I see him coaching the soccer team." (Alas, it was not to be; Cranford was eliminated in Episode 4).

Talk about humiliation: The women are expected to go on group dates with the bachelor, who usually winds up making out with one or several of them. In one instance, Buerge rejected one of the bachelorettes on camera after telling her she seemed to have a "fatal attraction" toward him.

It's hardly a surprise that the NOW Foundation, part of the National Organization for Women, recently gave the show an overall grade of "F," with failing marks for "sexual exploitation" and "social responsibility."

So why do so many self-respecting women find "The Bachelor" so irresistible? And what does this tell us about the mind of the modern woman?

Some women say they watch the show with amused detachment, acknowledging that it's all faintly ridiculous. At the same time, however, they say there's something edifying and cautionary about it. In essence, it makes them feel smart, or at least superior by comparison to "The Bachelor's" blubbering, backbiting bachelorettes.

"The show gives us a chance to laugh at every action that personifies the 'dumb bitch' gene most of us women strive to control," Amanda Parker, 23, a law student in Athens, Ga., writes via e-mail. "Those women, on the other hand, seem to have taken a big swan dive in the dumb-bitch gene pool. . . ."

"Who cries that much?" she asks. "Have they never heard of self-respect? Pride?"

Some confess to taking guilty pleasure in watching other women fail or stumble. "The Bachelor," after all, turns an experience every woman can relate to -- romantic rejection -- into a sort of devilish entertainment.

"I came to the realization that we are feasting on other people's misery," e-mails Gabriella Wright, 32, a "stay-at-home mom" who lives in Mobile, Ala. "Granted, these women did ask for it by volunteering to participate, but how much better are we for wanting to watch them suffer? . . . I always feel at the end of each show like a shameless voyeur into human suffering."

Other women say they can't help projecting themselves into the bachelorettes' high heels. For them, the series serves as a romantic fantasy and as a sort of dating instructional video. They tune in for a glimpse into the ever-mysterious male psyche, that muddy bog women have been trying to fathom for centuries.

In a way, it's all about female insecurity and self-improvement.

"I watch and think, 'Oh, my God, do I do that on dates?' " offers Valerie Walston, 26, a media consultant who lives in Alexandria. "When dating is brought to television, you suddenly realize all the silly things we women do on dates to try to attract the other person."

Kristine Borque, a 24-year-old marketing manager from Durham, N.C., calls the show "cheap and tacky" but acknowledges the seductiveness of its Cinderella/Snow White fantasy. The clothes are beautiful, the dating locales are exotic, the dinners are expensive.

"I think some of the allure is the fairy tale/mystique of it -- ooh la la, that 'any girl' can be chosen by this handsome suitor to be his true love," Borque writes in an e-mail. ". . . On the surface, watching a man on his quest to find the perfect woman to marry is very romantic."

Which is exactly what Fleiss, the show's creator and executive producer, had in mind when he pitched "Bachelor" to the networks last year.

Fleiss, a former sportswriter who's been married for 15 years, had surveyed the fertile landscape of TV dating shows -- "ElimiDate," "Chains of Love," "Blind Date," "Change of Heart," "Dismissed," among others -- and decided that two very basic elements were missing from all of them: continuing characters and an unfolding story.

"All those other shows were self-contained," he says by phone from Los Angeles. "You can't develop strong feelings toward the people on the show if all you do is see them having dinner in a restaurant. Our format allows you to see courting and dating. You become invested in the people."

Fleiss, 38, takes the same criticism to heart about another "relationship" show he created: "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" The Fox special became a debacle after TV groom Rick Rockwell turned out to be less than a multimillionaire and had two restraining orders against him, one from an ex-fiancee and the other from a male former roommate. His TV marriage to Darva Conger was quickly annulled.

"Bachelor" is "more responsible, more romantic and ultimately more real," Fleiss says. And the source of its appeal? "It reflects the fact that people will do just about anything to find the right mate. It's an important goal that everyone can relate to."

Andrea Wong, the ABC executive who bought "The Bachelor" immediately after Fleiss pitched it, said the show "is about finding the perfect person for you, and I think that's why it resonates with young women. . . . Women are much more passionate about this show because these are completely relateable emotions to women. Every woman goes through a relationship, and breakup, and falling in love. Men are less focused on it. Men have always been less interested in romance than women."

ABC and Fleiss found no shortage of young women willing to get their hearts stomped on on national TV when they began casting the second season of the series. The 25 women picked for this installment were culled from 7,000 female applicants.

Among those chosen was Cranford, 31, of Dallas, a former Miss Texas, Miss USA and Miss World contestant. She says she tried out for the show on a lark, just after "an up-and-down" relationship with her boyfriend ended after four years.

Cranford says she was genuinely disappointed when Buerge rejected her ("I put my heart out there for Aaron, I put my heart out there for America," she says). But she thinks now her tearful, emotional reaction to her jilting may have been a result of other factors.

"You get caught up in the 'Bachelor' bubble," she says. "You're wined and dined. You're cut off from TV, radio, cell phones. . . . When I got cut, I had been drinking throughout the night. I looked more emotionally attached to him than I was. But there was more to it than that. You're leaving the mansion, you're leaving close friends. What can I say? I was used to limos and villas at that point."

Another contestant, Frances Dinglasan, said she was struck by how her competitors seemed to fall for Buerge, without really knowing much about him.

"A lot of them were really in love with him," says Dinglasan, who walked off before Buerge passed judgment on her. "I don't know why people behave that way. I guess when you're isolated in the house like that, and your whole world is this one guy, you lose perspective on things. . . . The way the show is set up, it really makes these women look desperate, even though in real life these women have lots of men."

Of course, "The Bachelor" really only needs to sustain the illusion of romance, rather than actual romance, to keep its viewers happy. Despite strong suggestions to the contrary, "The Bachelor's" bachelor isn't obligated to marry the woman he picks. Nor does it seem that it will work out that way. The relationship between first-season bachelor Alex Michel and "winner" Amanda Marsh ended quickly after he picked her on the show last spring. In an interview with the Associated Press last month, Buerge said, "Regardless of the outcome of the show, marriage is a long ways off."

Flush with the success of "The Bachelor," Fleiss is preparing "The Bachelorette," a reversal on the boy-meets-girls/boy-rejects-girls format. The show, debuting in January, will star Trista Rehn, the runner-up from last season's "Bachelor."

ABC has also ordered another show from Fleiss that boils down this genre of reality programming to its essence. Contestants on "Are You Hot?" will compete to be crowned the sexiest man or woman in America, with a group of acerbic judges passing judgment, a la the Fox reality hit "American Idol."

You want humiliation? Sign up for that one.

Staff writer Lisa de Moraes contributed to this report.

Women have been gathering around the TV all season to watch scenes like this, with contestants gathering around "Bachelor" host Chris Harrison.Tonight's the night: Will it be Helene Eksterowicz, left, or Brooke Smith who gets Aaron Buerge?Host Chris Harrison, above right, with two of the 15 remaining women last month as "The Bachelor," Aaron Buerge, slowly narrowed the field. Buerge later got help from friends Ryan and Melissa, left, siblings who moved into a guesthouse to observe the 10 survivors. The audience of women, meanwhile, was anything but shrinking.