THE FIRST THING you should know is that I love The Bachelor, and not in an ironic way. I count down to a new season’s premiere; I’ve done more archaeological digs through past contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts than is okay to admit. I’ve even seen all of The Bachelor Canada which, like all Canadian variants of US reality TV, is sweeter and more awkward, but also so low-budget they don’t even bother to whiten the Bachelor’s teeth. I was a late convert to all things Bachelor, but you know what they say about converts and zeal. Since discovering the show a few years ago, right around when I first started dating my now-husband, I’ve waded through most of the back-seasons in thick, day-long binges that left me with near-fever dreams.
I love The Bachelor the way I love most things, which is to say: complicatedly. On the one hand, I think it’s a fascinating cultural product, one I find great delight in close-reading. But I also love it, frankly, because I just like watching it. I think it’s top-notch entertainment, and I will straight up hip-check my politics out of the way, and give up many hours of my life, in the name of being entertained.
I’m not alone. On January 5th, 7.7 million people tuned in to watch the first episode of the show’s 19th season — a premiere spun out from its usual two hours into an improbable three by what was billed as a red carpet event, but came off more like a parking lot tailgate for a convention of pharmaceutical reps. Alumni from past seasons (of the original show plus it’s twin, The Bachelorette, and spin-offs Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise) didn’t so much walk the red carpet as stall out on it, caught in networking eddies, clutching generously-served flutes of white wine — the franchise’s de facto signature drink.
The Bachelor is an unscripted television show in which a group of women some 25 strong compete for the love and matrimony of a single man. Over the course of about a month-and-a-half’s worth of film-crew-chaperoned dates, the Bachelor whittles down his bevy of pursuers, handing out roses as tokens of his affection to those he’d like to keep in the game. Ideally, the show ends with a marriage proposal.
But I’ll bet you already knew that.
Because in reality-TV-time, The Bachelor is practically archaic, its format having gone almost untouched for 18 seasons over 13 years. Even if you’ve never seen an episode, odds are good that least this much — the roses, the mansion, the dates, the proposal — has permeated your consciousness.
The Bachelor is like a time-traveler visiting us from first-gen reality TV. It should be a relic. It should be an anachronism. But it isn’t. In fact, the show’s popularity has been rising for the last several years, particularly among the coveted 18 to 34-year-old bracket and high-income households. This season’s premiere — red carpet and all — was crowned Monday night’s “most social” show, an accomplishment measured in tweets. Over the last couple of seasons, the show has started to feel something like a cultural touchstone, or at the very least FOMO-bait.
The Bachelor premiered in 2002, a year on which h if you were an adult, or anything near to one — it can feel bonkers to look back. Turning to what seems like the recent past and finding a world unrecognizable from our own, mostly due to the absence of now-ubiquitous technologies, is like watching a timelapse visualization of megafauna going extinct, or the melting of the polar ice caps — a feeling somewhere between morbid thrill and crippling nostalgia.
Suffice to say that in the world of entertainment, 2002 was a time when everyone was still bothering to wring their hands over the proximity of the words “reality” and “television,” as though the authenticity of the former might somehow be corrupted by the crass spectacle of the latter. The threat seems quaint, almost folksy now: if you believe these shows depict reality, then the very fabric of real-life could chatter into dust around us. Former participants on various shows came forward like whistleblowers, calling out the gamut of manipulative tactics employed by production, pointing to the lightbox trickery of editing. Pull back the curtain, and behold! The wizard is just another schlubby dude with his own agenda.
Now, the means by which “unscripted” TV is manufactured feels like something we were born knowing. A cocktail party with a roomful of people trying to date you is less a fun celebration of your desirability and more an all-night job interview with sweaty strangers enabled (or foiled) by free booze. Relaxing days by the pool are really marathons of boredom, needled by isolation into crazy-making rumination about oneself and speculation about others. Intimate, revealing interviews are spoon-fed monologues. We know this; we just don’t really care. We’ve raised ourselves to be savvy viewers, capable of at once seeing through the bullshit and enjoying the glossy final product.
You’d think that The Bachelor, of all things, would not stand up to this new kind of viewership. A show that leans on such sweeping rhetoric about love and romance ought to be deflated by even the lightest pinprick of realism. That it has not only remained standing but thrived has as much to do with the idiom the show has cultivated as what happens on it. Just as viewers are not naïve, neither are Bachelor contestants. The cast of love-seeking hopefuls is made up of one-time viewers, arriving on set literate in the shows tropes and mores. As Bachelor viewers become contestants, and failed contestants become love interests, the show is like a Darwinian pressure cooker turning over generations of participants. The result has been the fast-motion evolution of a kind of dialect, a Bachelor-speak that is both internally consistent season-to-season and crucial to the show’s moments of highest drama.
Bachelorettes vie for the commodity of “one-on-one time” in which they might develop “a connection” with the Bachelor. This connection is confirmed by “the rose.” The greatest threat to the Bachelor’s quest is the production-ensured inevitability that some of the competing contestants are not “there for the right reasons.”
It’s no coincidence that the show’s vernacular speaks directly to what have grown into the dominant anxieties of contemporary social life in general, and romance in particular: the fear that our connections are inauthentic, our gestures empty, our socially-mediated lives at once over-crowded and isolated.
It goes without saying that The Bachelor is not “good,” if by “good” you mean something like moral, or socially responsible. The show has been called out for being truly, thoroughly backward in its portrayal of pretty much anything relating to what our bodies look like and what we do with them: race, gender, sex, standards of beauty, mental illness, disability. You name it, The Bachelor has probably gotten it really, thoroughly wrong.
And yet, in spite of so many failures to reflect the world in which we really live, or the one to which we should be aspiring, The Bachelor is also, in other ways, weirdly culturally relevant. Though this may not have been the case when the show first launched, its format has come to mirror realities its 18-34-year-old, economically-secure viewers will find familiar. Simultaneously considering 25 bullet-point-versions of real people as prospective partners isn’t so different from flipping through online dating profiles. The surveillance of reality TV is at best an exaggeration of the feeling of being watched with which many of us have not only learned to live, but have come to embrace and, to the best we can, control, tweaking our profiles and putting filters on our selfies.
The Bachelor exerts the full extent of its powers in managing, often in the same breath, to both needle at anxieties about modern romance even while it soothes them. It lobs the same two-cents again and again into the deep well of loneliness that, it implies, may be lurking only a couple of missed-nights-sleep and hefty glasses of chardonnay below the surface of just about anyone. But it also offers an ostensible answer to this unrest. Ultimately, that its viewers understand the conditions under which the show is made works in its favor; The Bachelor affirms the resilience of heteronormative, socially-conservative romance and its ability to bloom in even the most constrained, scrutinized, and contrived circumstances. As viewers, we are allowed to at once remain safely on the inside of the joke, aware of the preposterousness of the situation, while also allowing ourselves to be carried away by its results. It’s a form of emotional engineering so effective it seems to work on an almost cellular level — the entertainment value equivalent of a Cheetos’s ability to disappear when it hits your tongue, leaving you with all of the caloric intake but still hungry for more, certain you’ve consumed only air.
The bit of Bachelor-ese that has echoed most of all is, of course, “the right reasons.” Nearly everyone who comes into contact with the show seems to find themselves, at some point, saying and meaning it. (Though it’s worth noting that the show is not afraid to poke fun at even its most meaningful shorthand. In The Bachelorette Season 9, Desirée Hartsock and her mostly-uncoordinated suitors shoot a rap music video for a song called “For the Right Reasons,” penned by guest star Soulja Boy.)
The truth is, there are no right reasons to go on a reality TV show in search of a spouse, but there are also very few wrong ones. Mostly, there are just reasons, and, as with the explanation for almost any action, they’re neither here nor there. Besides, in some ways, if we concede the idea that “looking for love” is a good reason, the show is hardly the worst way to do that. How much more or less likely is it to work out than, say, going online, or letting your aunt set you up with someone from her church — both, like Bachelor casting, match-making functions that rely on snap judgments of suitability.
And while, statistically, very few of the engagements made on The Bachelor or Bachelorette have produced marriages, it’s also true that for the couples who have gotten married, none so far have divorced, and most have children. Not that staying together or procreating are necessarily hallmarks of a successful relationship, but my point is that the unions yielded by The Bachelor seem just like all marriages: arrangements that answer to a complex of social, economic, and biological needs and desires. There are no right reasons, but there are right circumstances.
This season on The Bachelor, something is different, and it’s not just the manufactured red carpet glamor. Season 19’s love object, Chris Soules, is not the same as Bachelors past. Sure, Chris looks the same — undeniably well-cut jib, sparkling teeth, biceps the size of my skull — but his circumstances are different. As The Bachelor promotional material will let no one forget, Chris is a farmer from Iowa (production has dubbed him “Prince Farming,” and previews featured Chris wandering Field of Dreams-style corn rows with disembodied sexy-lady-corn voices whispering to him). Many of the initial 30 women (they upped the stakes) competing for Chris’s love seem to have misunderstood what being a farmer means. Many have gotten hung up on animal references, but Soules has an industrial, 6000-acre corn farm — from all appearances, a successful one. (“Ooo, is it organic?” one contestant asks him eagerly. Chris cocks his head and gazes past her ear, as though mentally thumbing through Monsanto literature for an appropriate answer.)
Chris is from Arlington, Iowa, pop. 416. He’s a fourth-generation farmer, and he’s not about to leave his business or his land (even missing harvest to shoot the show, he says, was a sacrifice). Watching The Bachelor and its variants, you often find yourself wondering how some contestants — often successful, not-unattractive people — seem to have worked themselves up to the belief that the show is not only a possible way for them to meet someone, but the only way, a final lifeline on love. With Chris, this might actually be the case. On a totally pragmatic level, his circumstances are incredibly limited. And he knows it.
“If I stayed in Iowa and didn’t take this opportunity to be the next Bachelor, it would take a lifetime to meet 25 women,” Soules says in his introduction. No matter that he is all-American handsome and rich, here we have a Bachelor whose desperation matches — maybe even outstrips — that of the women pursuing him. Chris doesn’t just need a wife, he needs a farmer’s wife, and in the absence of a home-grown supply, he has to import one. There’s something very Seven Brides for Seven Brothers about all this. Well, bless your beautiful hide, Chris, and best of luck to you.
Meanwhile, back in LA, there is Other Chris — Chris Harrison, who has been hosting The Bachelor since its inception and I’m pretty sure is a genius (possibly of the quasi-evil variety), hard-wired with an understanding of what makes good entertainment and weirdly shameless about making it happen. Harrison is notoriously unflappable as, season after season, he delivers the same preposterous lines of Bachelor-speak (“Ladies, Bachelor, this is the final rose tonight. When you’re ready,” and etc.).
At the live viewing of the premiere (in a studio that awkward red carpet was apparently funneling into, just really slowly), Harrison promised that Soules’s journey would offer “one of the most dramatic, most romantic seasons ever.” The audience of Bachelor-alumni — what production calls “The Bachelor Family” — tittered in response. “I don’t say that lightly,” he admonished them. “I don’t just say that every year.”
Suzannah Showler is the author of Failure to Thrive (ECW Press, 2014).