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Bromance and Reality TV: The Real Reinvention of the Soap Opera

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When I sat down to watch Bromance, the show already had three strikes against it for me. First, I don't watch reality TV and second, I'd rather be watching my usual favorite (now canceled), Boston Legal. Finally, it is rumored that classic soap operas are disappearing, but I believe reality TV has emerged as a new form of soap opera to engage the emotions of today's audiences. I don't like soap operas.

But I decided to watch Bromance anyway because in Boston Legal the main characters  Denny Crane (William Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader) have been considered a really "bromantic" couple of guys for a few years now. And, in the final episode, they tied the knot in a double wedding ceremony with other characters played by Candace Bergen and John Laroquette. While Denny and Alan's marriage was not for "romantic" reasons and was strictly for inheritance-based purposes, it signaled the final, and maybe not entirely absurd, act of their intimately emotional man-to-man friendship.

How much more absurd and playfully staged could Bromance be? I wanted to know.

As a relationship expert and 20+ year veteran therapist, I wondered how the "nonfictional" Bromance episode would stack up with the fictional bromance between the Boston Legal characters and my experience with men in therapy and coaching. For me, this brings up the subject of men and feelings. In relationships, men are often stereotyped as emotionless horn dog villains and women as being emotional high maintenance pains. Neither is a healthy approach to emotional intelligence in relationships.

I refuse to stereotype men as being emotional voids (or women as too touchy-feely). I have met plenty of guys who admit that they are the ‘emotional one’ in their relationships. And the guys who appear to be emotionally non-expressive or non- responsive in their relationships are the ones with the strongest feelings to hide. Highly emotional men are frequently hooked up with emotionally restrained women. Relationship patterns and emotions are not totally gender determined. Emotional investments from both the man and the woman make a relationship strong.

Professionally, I think it is important to de-stigmatize emotionally expressive men. Being emotionally intelligent and aware is critically important for quality relationships. The basic idea of Bromance, to reward and value a guy because he knows his own feelings and can be genuine in expressing them, is outstanding. But how far from absurd and laughable can the show go to stimulate a new standard for men and still be entertaining? Breaking stereotypes is never easy. Okay, I know this is just reality TV, but can't I have higher aspirations for the show?

In this episode, Brody admits that he is "looking for a friend who has balls and willing to try anything". (I think he really meant crying in front of millions of viewers, but brought out the bikes instead.) So the group embarks on a ‘significant’ challenge of ramp jumping small pink bikes with tassels. Predictably, the guys who wiped out at less than two feet were booed and ridiculed. Most laughed at themselves. Subsequent scenes were littered with attractive women, guy games, and the curvy blowup doll.

Later in the show, just like the female stereotype, Brody stirs the pot by asking his guest, Gary, to gossip about the others behind their backs, which he did. Gary ratted out Femi for getting angry and causing trouble. Then Brody encouraged Gary to air his feelings directly with Femi, which he did. And so it went. Femi took great offense, got angry, and terminated his friendship with Gary. Intimate cameos of Gary with voiceovers revealed his tears and pain over being rejected and hurt by Femi. Shades of soap opera?

Brody decides he needs to spend one-on-one time with each of his guests in order to bond. The scene is an elegant fire pit on the patio with drinks and appetizers. Very cozy and bromantic? Short clips of Brody with each guy cast Brody in the role of superior interviewer instead of just having a good old guy talk.

One of the guys (I forget which) commented to Brody that the conversation they were having was "just like therapy". I could not have said it better myself, except Brody ain’t no therapist, for real. Around the pit, and in stereotypical style, Brody asked Gary if he was gay because Gary is a dancer and admitted he had lots of female friends as a teenager.

In their one-on-one with Brody, all the guys were trying excruciatingly hard to say the “right things” and to "relate" to Brody at a highly personal level. Brody's family tree of step and half siblings was drawn on the screen, detailing a chaotic story of multiple divorces, shifting family life, and painful abandonment by a stepfather. A couple of the guys claimed they could really relate to Brody on that and scored big. But who is listening to the dialogue? The guys are so adorable.

Stiffly and without emotion, poor Brody tried too hard to get inside each of his guests' heart and mind, but found that Chris P. wasn't hanging loose enough. So what does he do? Well, he invites Chris P. (who is to pick another guy to go along — Femi) out to a swank vodka bar, of course, to get them drunk and loosen up. Then Brody insists he doesn't want anybody to get drunk. Chris P. gets all wasted and both grosses out and amuses the others the next morning. He was hanging loose all right — still puking. Shades of a fraternity?

Finally, the getting-tossed-off-the-show scene was scripted aboard an elegant yacht that Brody bragged he had won in a poker game with the Sultan of Brunei. Following the formulaic drama of identifying the "safe" guys first, three dudes remained at the back of the boat: Chris, Femi, and, of course, Chris P. Who would be tossed?

Chris P. was portrayed as the most emotionally disconnected, but nice, guy who couldn't get his feelings up. He was given a life jacket, symbolic captain's hat, an oar, and helped into a small inflatable dinghy, alone minus the blowup doll, to paddle to shore. How sad. It looked like a long way to go.

Most of the guys managed to have tears streaming down their cheeks or at least welled up in their eyes. I guess that saved them. Poor Chris P. couldn't cry even if staying on the show depended on it. Perhaps if he had shed a tear, Brody would have been able to relate to him.

Now I never have been one to doubt the sincerity of emotion expressed by men, but when a bromance with Brody is at stake, I guess a man’s gotta do what a man's gotta do even if the feelings don't ring true. I get that.

Although I doubt the guys ever get emotionally real on the show, I still applaud the idea of recognizing and valuing men’s ability to engage in emotional intimacy and deep friendship with another guy. Sure, the motivation to perform is strong because the guy who does it best gets the prize. Nevertheless, in real life, the prize for emotional expressiveness and genuineness can be a beautiful and healthy forever partnership with a woman. And guess what? I imagine that there is a wide audience of young women hoping to find a guy who can cry, too.

Isn't that outcome worth this soap opera of gorgeous young men with watery eyes and tear streaked cheeks? I think so.

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