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.