Wednesday, May 21, 2008

“The Bachelorette,” the Five-Year-Old Patient Zero of TV Dating Competitions, Returns

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Ten brides-to-be, wearing wedding gowns, will climb a 15-foot slice of wedding cake smack in the middle of Times Square in New York on June 3. No, Vera Wang has not moved her bridal store to the top of the giant confection. WE tv is promoting the new season of its show “Bridezillas,” which launches on June 1, with a contest. The network is giving $25,000 to the woman who can make it to the top the fastest.

When I heard about this silly event, and how eager 10 brides were to humiliate themselves in public, I was reminded of how far reality competition shows have penetrated not only into the prime-time television schedule, but into the American consciousness. So it was not lost on me that I read about WE tv’s stunt on the same day that “The Bachelorette” (ABC, Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern) premiered its latest season.

“The Bachelorette,” in addition to being part of the first franchise of modern dating competition programs, is also one of the few in which a woman is the central figure being pursued by a bevy of suitors. (Tila Tequila’s “Shot of Love” is another, but not all of the contestants seeking to be with her are men.) When Alex Michel rejected Trista Rehn for Amanda Marsh in the final episode of the inaugural season of “The Bachelor,” Rehn was given the chance to turn the tables and sift through 25 guys to find her true love, and “The Bachelorette” was born. This campaign marks the fourth season of the show (there have been 12 editions of “The Bachelor”), and the woman in question is, once again, a former “Bachelor” contestant, 26-year-old DeAnna Pappas, who was one of the two finalists for Brad Womack last year. In a “Bachelor” first, he ended up picking neither of the women. So now Pappas has taken over the rose-distribution powers for this season.

I won’t pretend that I’m a fan of most reality television shows, nor that I have seen more than three episodes of “The Bachelor.” But as much as I hate to admit it, I watched the debauchery on “Rock of Love” (both seasons), which featured Poison singer Bret Michaels looking for love in a house filled with strippers and women who could easily pass for strippers. I wanted to catch the season premiere of “The Bachelorette” to kind of examine the ground zero of what the genre has wrought.

The whole “The Bachelor” / “The Bachelorette” franchise is the Rosetta Stone of reality dating competitions. Premiering on March 25, 2002, the show established the template for a tidal wave of programs to follow. You can draw a straight line from Michel, the first bachelor, asking a woman if she would accept his rose (signifying that she could stick around and participate in a group cat fight for the right to date him) to Michaels on “Rock of Love” asking a groupie wannabe if she was willing to wear a backstage pass and remain in the house to “rock my world” (translation, stick around and participate in a group cat fight for the right to date him -- while drunk and topless). The elaborate elimination ceremonies (accompanied by overly dramatic music), confessionals to the cameras, arranged dates, quests for one-on-one one time with the star, elaborate pre-commercial previews, and so much more, all go back to “The Bachelor.”

So what did I think? Well “The Bachelorette” certainly doesn’t sink to the same low-brow levels of “Rock of Love,” “Shot of Love” and “Flavor of Love,” for example. For one thing, on “Rock of Love,” very little felt real. Most of the monologues, events and relationships seemed choreographed by the writers. If an article was published tomorrow that proved that the whole thing was a fake, and that Michaels was in a long-term relationship but just did the show as an act to resurrect his career, I would have had no trouble believing that the report was true.

But “The Bachelorette” feels a lot more plausible. Pappas is either an actress of Streepian proportions, or she really thinks she can find love on this show. And that level of authenticity makes the goings on more engaging. There are some sweet moments (not an adjective that springs to mind in most dating shows) as Pappas interacted with her suitors, and by the time the roses were being distributed at the end, I couldn’t help myself from rooting for her to keep and dump certain bachelors. (Cutting a lot of contestants the first day, in this case 10 of the 25, is another show trait that has been adopted by many of the “Bachelor” knock-offs.) I was happy to see Pappas, for example, send scary-but-buff fitness trainer Greg packing. His seemingly drug-induced rant as he left, which included shredding his shirt in an “Apocalypse Now” Martin Sheen-in-the-hotel-like moment, only verified her good judgment.

And it was nice to see a contestant take some heat for not wearing a suit to the initial cocktail get-together, instead of, say, a contestant being urged to get naked (although that, eventually, happens in the first episode of “The Bachelorette,” too, although in this case, it’s just one of the guys who decides to show off his wares on his own).

In other words, I completely see the fun people find in a show like “The Bachelorette,” especially for female viewers who get to indulge in a fantasy of dressing in fancy clothing and being courted by 25 men, most of whom are exceptionally good-looking and successful.

And yet I couldn’t help being disturbed by the show far more than any trashy fun I could derive from the proceedings. Throughout the two-hour premiere, Pappas hammers home the point that she is in search of true love and ready to settle down with the man of her dreams. She admitted to looking for a “fairy tale.” No harm there. But she also repeatedly said that she believes in the show as the method to fulfilling her goals, noting that she fell in love with Womack on “The Bachelor,” even if he didn’t return her feelings.

So here is a movie-star gorgeous young woman, who is also personable and engaging, first agreeing to go on a television show and compete with 25 other women for the affections of one man. And then, after having her heart broken twice (once in the finale, and again in the reunion episode when she tried and failed again to woo him), she goes back into the fishbowl of reality television to try and meet someone else.

Some might call Pappas a romantic. I would call her mentally ill.

I’m sorry, a fun and exceptionally beautiful woman has no shortage of ways to meet men, and nearly all of these paths are more responsible and have a likelier chance of success than talking to them while multiple cameras and microphones watch and listen in. The idea that a woman who should have zero trouble finding an army of potential suitors in the real world would go on a television show as the primary means of meeting her future husband is insane. I thought people went on reality television to be on television, not to actually find love?

“The Bachelorette” can wrap the show up in as much talk about true love that it wants, but, in the end, this is a NASCAR race of the heart, with people tuning in to see the crashes. The program is saying to the audience, “Come watch this silly woman try and find love in an ass-backwards way! You know it’s gonna be great drama when things go south!” But what’s worse is that the show is also sending the exact opposite message, sucking in viewers (mostly women) to the idea that she just might find her husband on the air. After all, Rehn ended up marrying the man she chose on “The Bachelorette,” so why can’t Pappas? But a better question is, while Pappas could meet her Mr. Right in this bizarre way, why would she want to?

The whole mess of why she’s there makes it impossible for me to enjoy the dumb fun that is buried in the program. Trust me, I get that I’m overthinking this, but isn’t it about time we start thinking at least a little about these things?

There is also an argument to be made that “The Bachelorette” reinforces stereotypes of women and unrealistic expectations in its audience, but I’ll leave that discussion to the sociology majors to debate. It’s enough for me to know that the whole spectacle made me uncomfortable, and in a worse way than the raunch-fest of “Rock of Love” made me ashamed to have watched it.

Something tells me the “Bridezilla” brides clawing through cake in Times Square in two weeks are loyal fans of “The Bachelorette” and will tune in for the next seven weeks to see if Pappas finds her true love. I would respectfully suggest to them that they, and Pappas for that matter, might want to consider some healthier pursuits.