MGM impresario Louis B. Mayer once famously told the director John Huston, “It’s not glamorous to see a woman sitting on a toilet with her dress pulled up and her private parts naked, taking a pee or a crap.” This was Mayer’s special way of proposing that movie audiences wouldn’t pay for a cinema of the mundane, of pitting the golden age musicals whose lavish productions he oversaw against Huston’s stoic, code hero-quest pictures. Mayer was right, to a point, but not about public disinterest in narrative realism. There are aspects of human behavior that don’t need to be seen. It feels boring, even creepy, to watch people in situations they wouldn’t want you to. But what Mayer failed to anticipate was the entertainment value inherent in watching people play out their lives with conspicuous omission. Reality television, like the social media platforms that have emerged in the genre’s wake, offers a glimpse of other people’s lives with several large grains of salt. Any person with an Instagram account can confirm that it’s pleasing to see people as they desire to be seen, even while knowing that the proffered glimpse is curatorial at the least.
“Reality TV” is a coinage of a bygone era, used to describe a vast assemblage of dubiously unscripted television shows that purport to deliver a glimpse into some banal facet of human behavior, with the marketed caveat of “a twist.” Using this formula, Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a show about family dynamics, where the “twist” is a PR whiz matriarch who has hacked the Hollywood gossip machine into a formidable family empire. The Bachelor and its spinoffs are about meeting one’s (emphatically heterosexual) romantic mate, where the “twist” is whirlwind competition. But it is a second, unstated caveat that provides the dramatic tension required to maintain an audience’s investment week after week and in between seasons: the cathartic distance implicit in a produced and monetized “reality” in the first place. As viewers, we’re not just in on the joke; we’re in it for the joke. An element of performance mitigates the itch of intimacy, such that moments we might look away from IRL — say, someone else’s marital distress or another’s abject humiliation — are made palatable from the action side of a peephole that both ends have agreed to.
When The Bachelor kicked off its 21st season, I was paying attention: In my relatively newfound capacity as an entertainment news editor for a women’s lifestyle website, I’d decided to begin running recaps of the series as a test. TV coverage, reality or otherwise, didn’t tend to be a huge audience draw for us at the time, but anything that pertained to The Bachelor proved a consistent exception. The sweet, socially conscious editor who worked alongside me offered to write up the recaps herself, admitting with only the tiniest shred of irony that she loved the show, too. The same was true for many of my friends, I soon found out. It seemed I was the odd duck in my milieu who hadn’t noticed that this show was enough of a big deal to draw 6.56 million people in the coveted 18- to 49-year-old age bracket for a network television premiere, a fast-diminishing audience for real-time TV broadcasts. (For context, NBC won the demographic during the 2016-2017 season’s primetime premiere week with an average of 2.51 million viewers for all of its shows.)
As viewers, we’re not just in on the joke; we’re in it for the joke
The Bachelor — and its spinoffs, The Bachelor in Paradise and The Bachelorette — belongs to a subset of reality programs whose genesis reaches much further into the annals of broadcast history, embodying a format that has proved bankable since at least the 1930s: It’s a game show. Lots of reality shows are, of course, but the difference here is that the broad contours of the contest mirror a game that most of us have also played. The puzzles contestants must solve to obtain the grand prize — ostensibly, in The Bachelor, true and everlasting love — are largely arbitrary and situational. (Will contestant X have ingredient Y that bachelor(ette) Z is looking for in tonight’s comically manufactured date setup?) Yet the mechanics of success in the dating game aren’t totally untrue to life. Both onscreen and off, the ingredients of compatibility and attraction that we’re culturally taught to prioritize in prospective partners aren’t necessarily easy to predict or control for. The difference is that, unlike a probable majority of the rest of us, the show’s contestants are demonstrably good at replicating the usually private cycles of romantic longing, pursuit, sexual conquest, and rejection in front of a crowd. The Bachelor is a forum for prowess in an otherwise quotidian social interplay.
What defines a game? There are rules. There’s a procedure. Most importantly, there’s a specific goal, or object: a tangible experience or offering, an outcome that is also a prize. To arrive at the object, players usually require a combination of strategy, skill, and a dash of chance to advance in a series of steps, or turns, or episodes. For people who like games — either playing or watching — knowing the steps is part of the fun. An established process affords players an opportunity to think ahead, padding out a nest of circumstantial conditions that are familiar, and relatively rare in a human experience scattershot with uncertainty. Game spectators get to enjoy a participatory meta-game of prediction, anticipation stripped of stakes.
By and large, I’ve never cared for games — not recreationally, and not in the figurative, relational sense. Games draw on an element of ruthlessness, where success is determined by who better bests the competition at hand. Two players with equal-on-paper prospects might fare very differently depending on how masterfully they’re able to sniff out and strategize against the competition. I don’t like to think about other people in terms of odds against me, but I’m grimly susceptible to this particular outlook all the same. In life and in fun I prefer to play selectively, within boundaries that feel winnable and on terms I can control. I was a varsity tennis player in high school, my sole venture into any kind of competitive sport. At least in a singles match, where sense of self counts for just as much as ability, you can imagine that your primary opponent is yourself.
The broad contours of the contest on The Bachelor mirror a game that most of us have also played
Likewise, I don’t understand heterosexual courtship basically at all. From a distance, the dynamics of contemporary dating appear to be at least initially built around loosely implying your feelings or needs via text message instead of actually stating them, then waiting until an arbitrarily long-enough period of time has passed before hitting “send.” This presumably serves to protect participants from the sting of rejection while also seeming to prevent all involved parties from advancing toward any manner of goal, at least for a time. In this day and age, where it isn’t assumed that everyone seeking companionship is setting out to partner forever and ever, people in the dating market have to sniff out basic compatibility against the very likely odds that whoever they’re seeing wants vastly different things. Bachelor contestants may not want a forever and ever, either, but at least everyone knows that’s the game they’ve signed up for.
In The Bachelor, our protagonist is introduced to upwards of two dozen prospects in episode one (the current season opened with 29); by the episode’s end, a handful will be dismissed. It’s the kind of game where first impressions count for everything, both in potential paramours and for the audience at home. Candidates are run through a rigorous casting application and screening which may include “physical and psychological examinations and testing,” according to a Warner Brothers eligibility release that every applicant is required to sign for preliminary consideration. Would-be contestants consent to permit the show’s producers to check their credit history and interview their past employers, teachers, or neighbors, “etc.” Every single candidate on any and all of The Bachelor franchises agrees to be audio and/or videotaped at all times, whether or not they think they might be at any given moment, “and that such Recordings may be disseminated on television and/or all media now known or hereafter devised, in any and all manner throughout the Universe in perpetuity.”
Bachelor contestants vie for one-on-one date time with their potential prize by making their mark in group situations and cocktail hours, setting themselves apart in whatever way seems most contextually viable. Though the show’s players go through the motions of field-playing and compatibility testing, all parties sign up on the premise of an explicitly stated and shared desire: a (presumably monogamous) heterosexual marriage or marriage-track relationship. In the age of Tinder and countless other dating apps that make it easier than ever to casually pursue partnerships, everyone on The Bachelor is on board with a quest for lasting partnership, euphemistically described on the show as “the right reasons” to be there in the first place. But to make it to the final cut, players need to perform these reasons in a way that demonstrates both showmanship and acumen — knowing what the game requires, knowing how to fulfill it, and how to do so for an audience.
Shortly after Amazon acquired the livestreaming gaming platform Twitch for $970 million in August 2014, a move that caught many media industry observers off-guard, Ars Technica Gaming Editor Kyle Orland explained the then-three-year-old gaming platform’s stunning success in unflinching terms: “Twitch has become a phenomenon because watching the best players in the world is often more entertaining than participating as a relative novice.” Orland likened the draw of watching expert livestreamers play video games online to pro football, another beloved spectacle of individual players’ mastery as much as of the game at hand.
Bachelor contestants may not want a forever and ever, but at least everyone knows that’s the game they’ve signed up for
The same is true of The Bachelor. All three of The Bachelor franchises are cast from prior seasons’ castoffs; the bachelor and bachelorette of those respective series tend to be fan favorites who advanced into the finals of some past season as contestants, while The Bachelor in Paradise is an orgiastic spring break house party stacked with previous season darlings and troublemakers alike. One refreshing element of the game is that likeability doesn’t necessarily translate to a win. Bachelorette favorite Peter Kraus (Rachel’s season), a ruggedly handsome and down-to-earth personal trainer from my home state of Wisconsin, embodies the type of character audiences want to see win: A nice person from Flyover Country who appears to advance on purity of intent. Peter came in second, though, and that’s almost better; the vaguely douchey Bryan, with the textbook high school jock moves, wound up the winner.
This turn of events seems to demonstrate that the best players are, more than anything else, shrewd competitors: The saga of Peter and Rachel’s relationship added a pinch of real pathos, which amounted to narrative seasoning for a game whose stated objective was never really the point. Behind the scenes of spectator games are people: players, coaches, producers, and the society that lies beyond the confines of a given television — or laptop — screen. Game logic isn’t tantamount to justice. As in life, individual successes aren’t necessarily preordained by what “should” or “should not” come to pass.
Sixteen years after The Bachelor first aired, viewers know how the story ends. Few of the couples brought together by the show have made it to the proverbial altar, let alone beyond it. As if that was ever the point. What makes The Bachelor appealing isn’t the naive romanticism of its audience but the show’s imposition of structure onto a process whose offscreen equivalent lacks a clear narrative arc.
A new season of The Bachelor launched on New Year’s Day, this time starring 36-year-old racecar driver Arie Luyendyk Jr., a Bachelorette relic from five years past. I’ve heard his season described as boring, so far; five of the initial 29 contestants were named Lauren, and four were real estate agents. The game feels fatalistic this time, an almost cynical appraisal of millennial dating demographics. I’m sure producers will find some way of coaxing out adversaries.
No longer on the entertainment beat at work, I’ve been relieved of keeping tabs. Women’s singles tennis matches remain the only game I enjoy watching, although I don’t often get the chance to play the sport myself. I know enough about the mechanics to appreciate the minutiae of each players’ distinct styles, be it Samantha Stosur’s second-serve twist or Serena Williams’ powerful baseline rally. Mostly, I like seeing the athletes work, through physical fatigue and the yoke of expectation, to stay out of their own heads. It’s not a game for everyone, but one I can relate to.
This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of REALITY TV. Also from this week, Linda Besner on the fiction of behind-the-scenes footage.