August 30, 2013

Summer Musings: "Bach" to the basics

A step away from polished flings of previous seasons, the “sincerity” prized among characters in the reality TV show The Bachelorette opens up questions of what its audience wants to see—and why this is the case.

Editor's note: This article discloses some details about the season finale and other episodes of The Bachelorette.

Before I knew anything about The Bachelorette, I imagined that its draw was its amorality—soft porn for the outgrowing-ABC-Family demographic. From the glimpses of commercials I managed to snatch before my parents changed the channel, I had put together that there existed a show whose sole purpose was to bring to the public episode after episode of nubile, wanton twenty-somethings frolicking in hot tubs and removing each other’s clothes with their teeth.

But those were the early days of reality TV, and the times have most certainly changed. Provided here is my quick and by no means scientific hypothesis: As voices decrying Reali-TV as the scum of the new millennium proliferated, the patience of those originally enchanted by the novelty of Survivor wore thin, and, when the numbers dropped, networks hurried back to the safety of telling viewers exactly what they were getting and funneled their money back toward low-quality laugh tracks (ahem, The Big Bang Theory).

But the hardiest creatures evolve, which brings us to the latest season of The Bachelorette and its retreat to New Sincerity. It also brings us to the question of why I watched the latest season of The Bachelorette, and the answer is simple: It’s fascinating. The Bachelor/Bachelorette dynasty has been lambasted with accusations of hiring actors and scripting episodes, and creator Mike Fleiss, who spends his downtime tweeting by-the-minute episode countdowns to the #BachelorNation and misspelling the name of his new dating app, has been less than opaque about the importance of “keeping the ongoing soap opera alive.”

However, unlike many of its peers, it is clear that The Bachelorette took note when people started to feel icky about scripted reality, and responded in an insidiously brilliant way: The Bach—which is how I sometimes like to refer to the show when texting in the hopes that the recipient will confuse my Monday evening on the couch with a Monday evening at the orchestra—grew some self-awareness. It’s a manufactured self-awareness, but the show anticipates just enough of your skepticism to appear to invite its own inspection rather than brainwash you outright. The successful characters on The Bachelorette (I can’t speak for The Bachelor, whose swapping of gender roles might provide a twist to this model) turn out to be the earnest young men and women who appear to not only know exactly what they’re doing but also exactly why you might balk at it. Desiree flicks her hair and flirts on beaches but grows deadly serious in interviews when confronted with the possibility that anyone, God forbid, has joined the show for any reason other than “to find love.”

It makes great marketing sense: Viewers became uneasy with amorality; The Bachelorette responded with a moral compass. But the result is a very odd show—one that pits players against one another not in a game of seduction, but a game of sincerity. And the heroes often win the second game by deliberately losing the first. If “deliberate losing” sounds manipulative, that’s because it is—and therein lies the “manufactured” piece of the “manufactured self-awareness.” For while there are certainly plotlines that emphasize the existential struggles of the suitor and suited on The Bachelorette, they are still plotlines—crafted, in all likelihood, by a dark room full of writers and video editors foaming at the mouth whenever an unsuspecting dreamboat lets something oh-so-quotable slip.

But the plotlines are slave to a new honor code, and that code means that The Bachelorette must include within its world the outside world that watches. As the summer wore on, this season’s Bachelorette Desiree Hartsock spent more and more of her interviews talking about how, yes, it was in fact pretty uncomfortable to be dating five people at the same time and yes, she was pretty insecure about the fact that among her doting dates there might lurk ruthless hunks gunning to be the next Bachelor. The episode that included the Honeymoon Suite was content to earnestly suggest to its viewers that Des and each of her gentlemen friends may as well have spent the evening playing chess. And when, in the first part of the season’s finale, Desiree tearfully revealed to the quiet Brooks with collapsed-soufflé hair that she had only ever been interested in him, he sat uncomfortably while she cried and then confessed that he didn’t really miss her all that much when they were apart, and that the idea of proposing to her after knowing her for this short a time just felt kinda weird.

It’s all slick sensationalism, to be sure, but it isn’t romantic and it sure isn’t sexy, which leads to an interesting conclusion: To survive, The Bachelorette became less like reality TV and more like reality. And if that’s the case, a different question is left over: If the thrill of reality TV was escapism with a vague promise of truth, why are we interested in a portrayal that brings us closer to truth, but back to our own banality? Why do we suddenly want to see confusion, ambivalence, the opposite of passion, on a show whose central conceit is the promise of lifelong happiness? Why is it satisfying to watch a competition where no one appears to be very interested in winning?

Fortunately for ABC, the only way to find out is to keep watching.

Emma Thurber Stone is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology and gender and sexuality studies.