In the last decade, calling reality television an oxymoron is not a derision of the genre, but rather an acceptance that we see what editors, producers, and directors want us to see. This is not to say that all reality programming is scripted like The Hills and its ilk, but rather that shows need to be entertaining, and to be such, there needs to be a villain, an underdog, a hero, a character with mystique, and often, a twist at some point: an epiphany, a concealed lie cum secret, a scheme, a revelatory crush, a change of heart, or a moment of sincerity destined to wreck one person’s emotions but vindicate any repressed emotions within the revealer.
This – and other random acts of melodrama – keeps many viewers tuning in each week, waiting for the finale so they can start the journey over with a set of fresh faces that obfuscate former cast members from the previous season. (Pop quiz: Name any five winners – Richard Hatch excluded — from Survivor, a show that has 21 seasons under its belt.)
As viewers, we relish the temporality, the week of trials and tribulations for our reality stars condensed into one manageable hour with 18 minutes of commercials that provide both pregnant pauses and momentary respites in the constructed drama. At the same time, there are a handful of reality shows whose premise extends beyond the temporal, setting the winning contestant on a path that will alter his or her life, potentially, for years to come. These shows are glorified dating games, but instead of setting two people up and hoping for a love connection – or more commonly a sterile debacle a la Chuck Woolery or Roger Lodge – shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette drag the viewer on a 12-week / 24-hour trek with the single soul who has the opportunity to date and eliminate a dozen potential suitors until he or she pares the contestants down to two viable mates.
While I was running at the gym the other night – and I’ll also preface this by saying that before going to the gym I strangled a bear that was trying to steal an old lady’s purse – The Bachelor was on the television above the treadmill, and I was forced to watch it. The allure of this show is clear: It offers the vicarious experience of finding a soul mate, and also plays on the viewers’ sense of fate, namely the possibility that being in the right place at the right time is more destiny than chance. Likewise, each contestant and, seemingly, the desired genuinely appear to want to find their true love and live happily ever after. Fairytalish and cloying? Sure, but that saccharine feeling is what keeps us all bouncing back from heartache and breakups.
During each episode, the bachelor or bachelorette takes various suitors – at times one, at other times a group – on dates that often consist of breathtaking scenery of white-sand beaches, snowy mountain chiaroscuros, or variegated landscapes, often sprinkled with new cultural experiences like wine-making, fabric dying, or any other activity found in foreign countries. However, variations on these adventures pose the first concern within the scheme of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette: a perfectly constructed setting that offers once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, raising one’s level of adrenaline and blinding each contestant with wonder and intrigue.
This is not a terrible way to draw in viewers – inasmuch as they experience the thrill by proxy – or contestants, but often it seems that the serene, beatific setting might cloud, or at least alter, one’s judgment. In other words, subsequent dates and interactions with Mr. or Mrs. Might-Be-Right are tinted with the sublime and serene sceneries, potentially occluding any character flaws, allowing them to slip under the radar. Moreover, this risk exists for both the Bachelor and the suitors. Of course, beautiful surroundings can’t repair the holes in a relationship or moor two people who have drifted leagues apart, and The Bachelor exacerbates this illusory perception by also obviating any of the real-life scenarios that would hinder a burgeoning relationship: family, friends, jobs, and perhaps most of all, money.
If the premise behind these shows is to find someone for whom you can declare your love, it would be emotionally responsible – or at least realistic – for those elements to be entered into the equation, as opposed to simply being mentioned during a conversation had on a white sand beach or in front of a roaring fire while eating strawberries and lounging on a llama-skin rug. Sweeping someone off their feet is the easy part – providing there are no distractions; if the room with the roaring fire is not being carried on your dime – or your suitor’s dime – then why not live it up? However, in the real world, a credit card limit and monthly bills might make one of you balk at that second bottle of champagne, maybe the chateaubriand would take the form of New York strip, and that beautiful Tahitian hut on a pier extending over a sapphire-tinted ocean would be one of 300 conjoined hotel rooms, two blocks from the shore with an adjacent parking lot.
To many, money is no matter, but what about the source of income? To afford these scenarios, each person’s salary would have to be substantial, and often those careers require overtime, non-traditional hours, and a commitment to a BlackBerry or other email-receiving device. Therefore, when the boss calls with an emergency, a potential client waffles on his or her end of the bargain, or your most recently hired assistant has crashed part of the computer system, where does the focus of the suitor and the suited really lie? We can all assert how calm and collected we are, but when there is nothing to test our tempers and fortitude, how much stock can be put in declarations made on a game show where the goal is to take home the top prize?
I’m not suggesting that love is impossible to find on these shows. Rather, it seems that the grand prize is illusory in that the show is constructed in such a way that any hang-ups and external impediments a relationship may encounter in its embryonic stages – and the brevity of the season certainly still casts it as such – are negated, so the rewards are hardly reaped. Instead, the euphoria of winning needs to clash with the realities of winning: deciding whether or not your profound statement of love can be as powerful when there are not other distractions concealing the true personalities of you and your partner.