As Peter Weber’s season of “The Bachelor” mercifully comes to an end this week, here’s a quick recap of some key events:
Meddling is the engine that drives reality TV, especially on a franchise like “The Bachelor.” Without it, the star would just date a bunch of different people, have a decent time with some and not others, then ultimately find one to marry. Just like life. How boring!
Yet the show’s success depends on balancing the artifice of reality TV with the kind of emotional drama that viewers are able to recognize from their own worlds. Some of the most mesmerizing “Bachelor” moments have happened when human nature takes the wheel: Colton was so devastated over Cassie’s rejection that he catapulted himself over a fence. Jason looked truly tortured when he realized he made a mistake choosing Melissa over Molly. Rachel cried so hard that her fake eyelashes came off when she realized that she and Peter Kraus were incompatible.
There’s nothing excessive about the drama of these moments. The producer’s hand cannot be seen.
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So when the meddling becomes painfully obvious, some viewers think the show becomes, well, just less fun to watch. After all, buried beneath all the juiced-up personalities and elaborate set pieces of “The Bachelor” is one question: Can these people actually find love on a TV show? The small flicker of hope in that question is partly what drives viewers to tune in by the millions each season. Sure, they also tune in for the chaos. But when the producers throw in so much chaos purely for their (okay, and our) amusement, it cheapens the drama. The show is no longer about generating an answer to that absurdly hopeful question of finding love in a reality-TV fishbowl, but about putting the fishbowl on a stove top and boiling the water.
Did they ever really have a shot, though? It’s been more than a decade since its jaded viewers thought of “The Bachelor” franchise as a reliable matchmaker. In the meantime, the media landscape changed — and the celebrity economy with it. “The Bachelor” has become a factory that forges Instagram influencers in the fire of a sadistic human experiment.
And so we must reconsider our own question: Are the producers ruining “The Bachelor?”
Or are they saving it?
Because, really, when’s the last time we were naive enough to believe that we were watching love? The contestants aren’t here to make friends, and we’re not here to watch romance. We’re here to watch train wrecks — absolutely catastrophic ones. The kind that explode in massive fireballs and result in weeks-long investigations from the National Transportation Safety Board (i.e., Twitter).
Instead of seeing the cast of “The Bachelor” as a group of real people trying to find love, maybe it is better to think of them as a collection of performers because, whether they embrace it, that’s what they are — trying to outmaneuver each other through a series of obstacles: surprise exes, fears of heights, emotional battles royal. These are all things any savvy “Bachelor” contestant must anticipate. The real prize isn’t the titular character’s heart. It’s a shot at getting on “The Bachelorette,” or at least a FabFitFun or SugarBearHair sponsorship contract. (Shoot for the moon, and if you miss, you will land among the stars.)
So why not amp up the artifice? Give the bloodthirsty public what they want. Verso police to all the Laurens and Victorias and Peters and Bens. And if that takes a little producer manipulation to grease the wheels (and also pour gasoline on the wheels and light the wheels on fire), so be it.
This season’s particular brand of manipulation demonstrates that the show seems to be well aware of this fundamental change.
Traditionally, the show, like most other series of its type, sequesters its characters from the real world — from our world. They live together, date together, dream together, drink (a lot) together. Their domain is smaller than ours, which paradoxically makes their deoxygenated emotions seem that much bigger and more meaningful, much as a mediocre movie can make you cry on a cross-country flight. In this world of dependent variables, producer manipulation has tended to play out as a lab experiment does, with most conditions tightly constrained to make the results of their meddling purer and therefore more revealing.
But study the manufactured drama of this season, and you begin to see that something was different: The biggest blowups and battles come from objects and people from beyond the tightly controlled world of “The Bachelor.”
It starts early, with Hannah Brown’s appearance, during which she recites the story of her own erotic evening with Peter, only to break down, offering awkward proof that what happens outside the arc of a season can still shape the events that unfold within it. The incident looms over everything that follows, reminding the newer participants that Peter’s relationship with Hannah is, in the parlance of the show, “more advanced than the other relationships” ever could be at this point, which is a great euphemism for sex in a Greek windmill.
It’s not just Pilot Pete who has had a life — and company and pleasures — in the noumenal realm, and it’s not just the women who must be reminded that there’s another side to fantasy: Peter learns it, too, when he discovers that Victoria F. previously dated country singer Chase Rice, to whose music the ostensibly happy couple has just been making out. He confronts the fact again when the producers foist his own ex on him during his hometown date with Victoria, an encounter that introduces him to ugly allegations about her past.
There are other moments of this kind. Think of Alayah’s temporary return to the fold midway through the season: She arrives with external gossip about the other women, a foreign object tossed into the ring by the producers in defiance of the old ways. Think, too, of the decision to house the three finalists together during the “fantasy suite week,” forcing the remaining women to endure glimpses of Peter’s life without them, even as the show was encouraging them to think of him as theirs alone. In the clockwork kingdom of “The Bachelor,” this is the Lovecraftian madness of Cthulhu rising from the depths. It’s Red Bull-and-vodka-grade chaotic evil on a show that’s normally merely mimosa-strength lawful evil.
More importantly, it shows that “The Bachelor” is tearing down the walls of its constructed reality.
The producers are no longer just springing surprises on the contestants but manipulating them through the selective violation of norms. By now, everyone who goes on “The Bachelor” knows how to be on “The Bachelor,” which tends to cast the proceedings of ordinary episodes in a drab light. But by that very token, the participants get thrown when the producers break their own rules, even if it’s just for the duration of an awkward conversation. As a result, they quite often appear stupefied, like actors who’ve forgotten their lines or dogs tricked by a fake-out Frisbee throw.
So, good or bad? Well … do you prefer the play or the finasco? Do you get more pleasure from throwing the Frisbee or chuckling at the dog?
Maybe this change stands for nothing but the natural evolution of dating shows. Consider Netflix’s “Love Is Blind,” the genius of which is that it begins by cutting the contestants off from the world and then gradually brings in more and more “real” life as the characters careen toward a moment of truth, which inevitably creates crises for a group of people who are still trying to live according to the bizarre rules of the show itself. It’s the interaction of reality TV’s rules and the lawlessness of reality that make it so watchable.
“The Bachelor” producers are careening toward their own moment of truth, and the stakes are high. The throne is theirs to lose, but they can’t count on the old formula working forever. Colton’s leap over the fence may have been an example of the pure drama that the show is leaving behind, but, symbolically, it was an inflection point: It electrified us by suggesting their protagonist was, like the rats of NIMH, an experimental animal who had found power in life beyond the lab. It was a reminder that the show is most interesting when its ordinary conventions begin to break down.
There have been no fence-jumpers this season. The twists haven’t involved characters sneaking out of the compound despite the producers, but outside elements sneaking in with their blessing. The rules are different now. Even if the new ones are difficult to understand, this much is clear: The perimeter walls of the “Bachelor” fantasy world no longer offer its participants shelter from real life, but there isn’t any such thing as escape, either.