by Abby Bardi
I've been watching The Bachelor and its multiple spinoffs since the last episode of its first season in 2002, when blond, perky Trista Rehn was rejected by the eponymous bachelor and sent home in a limo, weeping. The following season, Trista became The Bachelorette and in her final episode, chose a quiet, unassuming firefighter as her mate. They now have two children and are trotted out for Bachelor events to prove that the process works: two people on TV can meet and fall in love, then marry and reproduce — as long as they are "there for the right reasons."
But for the most part, The Bachelor doesn't work: a couple that ends the season on an exotic beach with a teary marriage proposal formalized by a huge, gaudy Neil Lane ring will invariably end up in a Twitter-fed feud on the covers of tabloids.
In my early 20s, I sang in a wedding band. When you attend multiple weddings in which you have no emotional involvement, you develop a certain cynicism. From the bandstand as I listlessly plowed through the hits of the day (I was doing it for the money), I saw multiple red flags, ranging from disagreements about the "first dance" (my ex-husband and I fought through ours) to what appeared to be budding Montague-Capulet situations.
It is this lingering cynicism that has drawn me to The Bachelor/Bachelorette.
In each season, an attractive (or not so much) person less than half my age is placed in a Los Angeles mansion with 25 or so attractive (or not so much) contestants of the opposite sex. Some are there to find love; others hope to leave their peculiar, dead-end jobs and join the ranks of Bachelor Nation with all its perks: a partying social network where even off-camera, hookups continue; spin-off shows, e.g., Bachelor in Paradise; guest appearances on talk shows; Twitter-fame. These are considered "the wrong reasons." Several former contestants have committed suicide.
Yet every season as I find myself rearranging my schedule around Monday nights, I ask myself why I am addicted to this contrived parade of human folly. And when I say "addicted," to be clear, not only have I watched at least part of every season (20 of The Bachelor; 12 of The Bachelorette; three of Bachelor Pad; and three of Bachelor in Paradise), but I have actually driven to the "mansion" in Agoura Hills, California, where the show is filmed and tried to peek over its high walls — twice.
To be clear, the show is often truly sickening. Over the years, each season has endeavored to be "the most shocking in Bachelor history," and to make sure this happens, the producer (Mike Fleiss, brother of Heidi Fleiss, the "Hollywood Madam") plies everyone with copious amounts of alcohol, which has resulted in strange and even violent behavior. During the most recent season of The Bachelorette, a muscle-bound "luxury realtor" named Chad terrorized the mansion's inhabitants and rapidly became the most popular figure on the show.
Almost no one believes in the "reality" of reality shows, and the Bachelor franchise has given birth to a meta level of fandom rife with conspiracy theories, insider gossip, spoilers, and lawsuits. A blogger named Reality Steve (who was sued by the show) has made a career of getting scoops from mysterious sources inside the Bachelor organization (my money is on Mike Fleiss himself). Past contestants have commented, despite vows of omerta, on how The Bachelor is not a "reality" show at all, but a heavily scripted, brilliantly edited pastiche of the raw material provided by drunken, beleaguered aspirants.
But the more convinced we Bachelor "super fans" are that the whole game is rigged, engineered as if by a Shakespearean magus, the more we love it.
I don't know why young people watch it; I think if I were their age, I would find it so incredibly depressing that I would not be able to stand two minutes of tedious "group dates" that might potentially lead to "hometown visits" and nights in the "fantasy suite."
In fact, I often fall asleep watching.
But at my age, what I adore about the show is that it confirms — no, is a paean to — my hard-won cynicism about love and marriage, my sense that however gooey a romance seems in that moment on the beach, reality — real reality — is bound to rush in like a wave and sweep away everything false and chimerical. I love how the Bachelorettes ignore all the red flags about the steroid-ridden, egomaniacal men they're surrounded by and always, always choose the wrong ones just as almost all my female friends have done.
And what I love most of all is how despite how dire most of the past outcomes have been, every season, two dopes stand on a beach somewhere beautiful — have I mentioned that the show is often visually stunning? — and plight their troth, knowing even better than I do that they will almost certainly wind up in a cover story in Us Weekly or In Touch about their horrible breakup. Despite this, despite everything, they continue to hope.
As do we all.